Here is how it happens: you wake up one morning and think, today I want to accomplish something. Today, I want to do something hard and a bit impossible for me. Today, I want to climb a mountain.
You are a bit deluded. And optimistic. (You are usually optimistic in the morning.)
After some rearranging of the family plans, you pack up your bag with bug spray and sunscreen, bottles of water and a change of clothes and then you head out. You drive alone and think about the romance of climbing a mountain: you think about standing at the top, wind whipping your hair as you gaze out on the world below, the conquering hero. You think about time to pray and time to think. Lately your mind has been unquiet, constantly thinking and wrestling and popping to one thought after another without ever really settling in to think well about any of it. Your mind aches with constant unproductive use, and so you’ve decided to give your mind a time-out by making the rest of your body ache with work.
You set out with a few others. You are out of breath within ten minutes. (This is going to be a long day.) What were you thinking? but you keep going and everyone passes you. A new group of climbers come by and then they are gone too. This will happen all afternoon.
You listen to a sermon on your iPod Touch. An hour passes. You are still climbing, straight up. The sermon ends, you try some music. You realise that this is not the place for other people’s songs, this is the place for your own breath so you put away the music and listen to the noise of effort.
You are dirty and tired but you’re doing it, one foot after another after another after another. You sit at the switchbacks to rest, to rub your thighs with relief, drink tepid water. As you walk, you pray and you think and you rest. Eventually you stop thinking about all the stuff you wanted to think about and instead you simply exist, with God, with your own breath, with your own physical body’s unbelievable strength. It may not be pretty but you are still climbing up and up and up. Slowly, through the rocks and the dust and the sweat and limitations.
Why is that something that seems so hard to you is seemingly easy to everyone else? The other climbers are simply ascending, cheerily friendly and sympathetic as they sail past with their breezy encouragement to keep going. Women fly by with flat stomachs in their neon running shorts, one woman has on false eyelashes. False eyelashes! You’ve sweated off your make-up, your face is red, your ponytail is wet with sweat, you have dust and pine needles stuck to your ass from the last time you sat down to rest.
“Don’t look up,” one man advises. “You’ll only get discouraged when you see how much farther you still have to go. If you must look around, look down, look how far you’ve come.”
Why didn’t someone tell you that at the bottom? because you keep looking up and feeling your heart sink. Still so far to go. Keep going keep going keep going until the halfway sign mark, then the three-quarter way mark. These markers are discouraging: surely you should be done now but instead, you still have so far to go. And your thighs are quivering.
You keep going.
This is the point where you wish you could quit. This is the point where, in every other part of your life, you would say “Good enough!” and walk away. You would say things like “I tried my best” as you moved on to something easier, something to distract, anything really. Who wants to work so hard? In your real life, you would peace out, leave it to the experts. Surely someone else can do this.
Starting something hard is way more fun than finishing it well. Only the pines witness the resolute courage to keep moving.
The only way out is up. You are in charge of your own rescue.
You keep going.
The last half is the real work. You’ve stopped gazing at the trees with wonder. You’ve stopped praying, stopped philosophizing, stopped writing lame blog posts in your head, vanity vanity.
You are on all fours, scrabbling up rock face, your fingernails are filthy and torn. One poor woman fell down in front of you. She landed in the dust of the rocks in a heap, startled and winded. You picked her up, got her water, stayed for a while but she wanted to keep going. You could tell she was embarrassed by her fall, embarrassed to be needing something from a stranger, even kindness.
You keep going.
You are longing to be done. Done done done. you want to be done. You quit you quit you quit. It’s been three hours of steady climbing straight up. Your mind is still at last, captivated by the effort of your heart and body perhaps, you are simply willing yourself to keep moving.
And then you break through the trees to the rock and you are there. The last few steps to the summit, and you begin to turn back around slowly, panting, sweating, aching, dirty.
You stand at the top of a mountain and close your eyes to the view for a moment.
You did it.
You did it. You climbed nearly 3,000 feet up into the sky by yourself.
It wasn’t pretty. It was terrible work. It took you twice as long as you thought it would. Everyone passed you, even that one guy who was seventy if he was a day. Everyone was better at it than you. (Part of you resented them for making it look so effortless.) You are so tired, If you could have quit, you would have. But instead here you are right where you wanted to be all along.
You stand at the top of the mountain but you aren’t cheering and high five-ing anyone like a few other groups: you are alone. You’re happy. Deeply profoundly happy, filled with joy and accomplishment. You stand on the rock and look out and think: I used to be there and now I am here and I did that on purpose.
You take off your shoes, peel off your socks and simply sit in the wind, looking out into the world. It takes an hour for you to realize that your mind is quiet at last. Maybe it’s because you did all your praying with your feet and your muscles and your dirty hands today.