As I stopped to catch my breath, I found myself contemplating whether or not I was really having fun yet. It started out simply enough. A little walk in the woods while visiting my hometown. I was doing fine, ambling along the abandoned road until I saw a new sign. It marked a new trail and promised a number of wonderful vistas for those who hiked a mile up the mountain.
I was feeling spontaneous and adventuresome. I had some time to kill. I chuckled a bit as I considered whether or not to “do” the trail. Mountain climbers are often quoted as explaining they climbed a mountain because it was there. I was alone. To whom did I need to explain my decision? I could, after all, just do it simply because I wanted to.
Naturally, the box containing the “trail guide and map” was empty. I must have been feeling philosophical, too because I actually considered that something of a blessing. I’d have to discover things on my own rather than follow the numbers. Why do we so often need to have things ordered and mapped out? Why do we look at the things someone else has decided we should see?
My first “breath catching” stop came a lot sooner than I’d hoped. As I pushed on, thoughts seemed to be rolling down the mountain, threatening to over take me. “No one knows where I am… This would not be a great place to have a heart attack… Am I old or just out of shape?”
As the difficulty of my self-imposed quest became more real, the self-doubts were not so easily suppressed. At first I didn’t want to deal with the possibility I wasn’t going to make it. I coached and encouraged myself. It can’t be that much farther…
At some point, it stopped being about my weakness and me. It started being about those darn vistas. How great can they be? I spent a lot of time and energy running around these mountains when I was younger. There are some great views. But this is tough, man. Is it really worth it?
I knew I was doing the “sour grapes” thing and thinking I could live with that. Then I jumped on that wonderful human ability to rationalize. If I didn’t make it, no one except me would know. Surely I could live with myself if I turned around and started back down. It wouldn’t mean failure, right? I exercised my right to decide to climb up here. So I can “undecide” too.
Even as I had this little conversation with myself, one foot kept going in front of the other. I gasped, perspired, and swatted bugs. Ah, the joys of spontaneity. I don’t have a water bottle with me. Not only am I tired and hot, now I’m thirsty too. Why don’t I just turn around?
One of the great mysteries of life is why certain synapses fire when they do. It was as though I saw and heard it at the same time. “You’re not being goal-oriented! You’re being goal-obsessed!” I actually sat down on a rock and laughed at myself.
In a relative sense, this was no great journey—a mile and a half if I did the whole thing. An hour or two at the most. And yet like a lifetime in miniature.
With apologies to Dr. King, it isn’t always necessary to climb to the mountaintop to see the Promised Land. Sometimes you’re already there.
I once heard a speaker ask his audience “When you were ten years old—did you want to be what you are?” He wasn’t just talking about career, he was referring to “person” and reminded us that we probably didn’t want to be who we’ve become, simply because we didn’t know about it when we were ten. Therefore, he concluded, “You didn’t achieve it—you had no goal, no vision, no plan. It just happened.”
In a somewhat over-simplified sense, his point was that sometimes the journey is as important as the destination. How easy it is to forget that, much as I did on the side of that mountain. When it happens, it is a tragedy. We get focused on the obstacles to the goal, our own weaknesses, and the lack we feel because we haven’t arrived. It’s as though we are living in a future that not only hasn’t happened yet, it may in fact not happen. We are only seeing that it hasn’t and worrying about whether or not it will. A lot of energy goes into how we will explain ourselves if it doesn’t, too.
Not only does all this create misery; it’s a terrible misappropriation of energy and self. Our obsession with the goal actually becomes our limitation. How ironic it seemed that I was at first relieved not have a trail guide to follow, then managed to create one for myself. Once I mentally threw it away, I began to discover and see what was there. The bright quartz rocks reminded me of beauty and joy discovered in unlikely places. The cool spring suggested the potential depth of simple pleasures. Each bend in the trail brought a new vista and adventure.
By the way, I did make it to the top. The originally sought vistas were truly inspiring. As I stood on one precipice, a hawk flew close by. I decided it was an eagle. We both were soaring. In my case, it wasn’t because of where I was. It was because of how I got there.