I once stood at the foot of a mountain, and looked up at the enormous task before me. The top seemed an impossible destination; I didn’t even know where to take that first step.
“Go on,” my mother smiled encouragingly at me, “I know you can do it.”
“What have you got to lose?” My father chipped in.
“We’ll be right here to catch you if you fall.” My brothers sang out.
I took my first step. I slipped.
“Try again,” my family urged.
I did. I climbed and climbed. I looked down, they were still there giving me the thumbs up. I laughed, and continued on.
The more I climbed, the better I got. But now and again, a sharp edge or a large impediment would stop me in my tracks. I would try to figure it out on my own, but at times, I would just be stuck. Miraculously, there were always some other climber ready to help me through. All I had to do was ask.
Some climbers were also finding their way up, and their companionship was an ease from the tediousness, as well as a motivation for me to excel with my peers. Some climbers were experienced climbers who had already made it to the top, but who had the benevolence to climb back down to help those climbing up. While climbing, I promised myself that when I got to the top, I would always remember those who had helped me, and the lessons learnt from all the challenges I have endured and overcame.
Some of my fellow climbers continued with me for parts of the journey before we took our separate ways, while others stayed with me much longer.
The further I climbed, the better climber I became. I eventually surpassed those who had helped me, climbing faster ahead. I would linger a while, but we knew eventually I would have to leave them behind.
Days turned to months. Months to years. I watched the shades of the seasons envelope around me one after another in a ceaseless cycle of wonder.
Every so often I would stop to appreciate the view before me, the journey awaiting above me, and the history below me.
Yet the higher I climbed, the more anxious I was to reach the top, and the more infrequent it became for me to stop and enjoy the achievement I had attained. I was too busy reaching for the finish line. I was tired; I was ready to trade the sacrifices I had made for the jews of comfort. I also stopped looking at what was below me, for fear of falling as I now had much more to lose.
The further I climbed, the less climbers I encountered. Those I did encounter was similarly too focussed on their future attainment to stop and help those passing by. At times of tiredness and frustration, I would imagine stopping and never climbing again. I imagined just sitting on the ledge to watch the beauty of the sunrise blend with each sunset, as the days and nights being the only indicators of time, where nothing needed to be attained as all there really was existed right there in front of me.
Yet, I never did stop. Deep within a voice argued that the sacrifices and efforts I had made was to get to the top; not to give up mid-way. So I climbed, and climbed. Each sunrise did melt into each sunset as the days rolled on top of each other in a meaningless cycle, only I wasn’t sitting on a ledge to witness it: the sun shone on my back, and my face was focussed on the face of the mountain in front of me.
I climbed and climbed.
I always imagined that when I arrived at the top I would spread my arms out and shout, “I made it!” I imagined that moment again and again in my mind as I climbed. I imagined how content I would be, and imagined how life would be so effortless after that. I imagined that moment as the turning point pivoting my life’s meaning.
Yet when I arrived, I could only collapse against the flat ground in exhaustion. A relief. I didn’t even have the energy to say “water”, let alone shout out, “I made it!”
After I regained my strength, I explored the world I had entered. A feeling of discontentment set in, followed by a quick shade of anger. I could hear myself saying, “Finally I’m here, what an achievement, blah blah blah.” Yet my heart was crying as I asked myself over and over silently, “Is this it?”
I got used to the life at the top fairly quickly. It was quite mundane, but at least it wasn’t as strenuous as the climb. After some time, the memory of the climb itself started to fade, and I would watch in disdain the new climbers struggling to the top of the mountain huffing and puffing.
“What’s all the fuss about?” I would think to myself, “Surely if I could do it, they should.”
Some of my fellow climbers finally arrived. “About time,” I thought.
Some of the experienced climbers returned. “Ready for retirement,” I thought unkindly.
Then my brothers arrived. I greeted them warmly as I had missed them dearly. I looked around for mum and dad, wondering where they were.
“Where’s mum and dad?” I asked.
“They’re still at the bottom.”
“Why didn’t they climb up?” I asked.
“They were too afraid to leave.”
I felt anger arise in me. Here I had climbed this huge mountain because they had urged me to do it, and they couldn’t even bother doing it themselves? Here they had told me to overcome my fears and worries, yet they couldn’t do it for themselves? Here I had accomplished this task and they weren’t here to see it? Here I had finally made it and they are not here for me to share it?
“What could they possibly be afraid about?” I gasped in frustration.
My brother gave me a hug and whispered, “They were worried about you. They were afraid that if they left, then no one would be there to catch you should you fall.”
That was the moment when I realised that the greatest mountain I needed to climb wasn’t the mountain I was standing on, but the hubris surmounted in my mind.
That was the moment when I looked down the mountain for the first time since I had reached the top, and saw the friends and mentors I had left behind. Some were struggling without anyone by their side, some were joking and taking their time, some went back to help those who had fallen behind, while others had perched themselves on a ledge to enjoy the rhythms of each sunrise and sunset.
At that moment, I realised that I could only be standing where I was because of those who had helped me along the way. Sure they may still be below me on their journey up the mountain, but that was because they knew that the mountain is not an object to be conquered for happiness, but one that provides the myriad experiences and viewpoints that allow us to conquer the most imposing threat to our happiness: our hubris.
I hugged my brother back, and said, “Come on, let’s tell mum and dad that the top isn’t as flash as everyone makes it out to be.”
14 May 2010