This is a repost of a piece I originally wrote on 4/27/08. I reread it recently, and it seemed like something I should reread a couple times of year, because I regularly find myself in need of the reminder. And it seems an appropriate tribute to Antiguo, whose passing 5 years ago today prompted it. He always said, “The tougher the climb, the better the view.”
As a human being, I’m sure I’ve spent the usual amount of time pondering the mysteries of the universe and honestly, and foolishly, expecting actual answers. Of course, they rarely come, and so I’m left to read and consider and live and speculate as to the nature of this universe we’re all living in, what it all means, and why seemingly bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people, and what happens to us after all this is over.
Of course, this seeking and philosophizing of mine has only been put into high gear since Antiguo died. It’s like if someone you love decides to move to Peru. Suddenly, you want to know all about Peru, what it’s like there, how one lives there, and what will they do all day in Peru? Can you visit? How will you get there? How long a trip will it be? The thing is, I KNOW where Peru is, and I know I could get there with a few phone calls, the internet, and a credit card. Not so the next life; I cannot find it on any map. I’ve read a lot of travelogues, but they’re always a little suspect; I don’t believe everything people tell me about this life is true. Like Columbus, I can only go forward and trust that my instincts are right.
A lot of what I’ve read shows a strong belief, across cultures and religions and traditions, the result of both faith and direct supernatural experiences, that we lived long before this life, and we will live long after this life, and this interlude is just one aspect of that. This belief is usually accompanied by one that says we chose to come here, to accomplish some sort of experience, or mission, or learning, or teaching, or all of the above, and that everything we experience, in one way or another, is in service to that. Not that we are predestined for everything, or that there is deep metaphysical purpose inherent in the event of my knocking the knob of my ankle on the wooden slat on my bed this morning beyond my saying “Ouch…shit,” and throwing myself onto the mattress until it stopped throbbing. There may not be a reason for every little thing that happens, but I feel there is a reason that we happen, and at some point, we knew what it was even if it eludes us since we were born into this life. And I think that a lot of little things collude to guide us in the direction of that reason. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I don’t believe in coincidences.
As I was driving to work the other day, I wondered again why anyone would choose to come into this life, with all its confusion and noise, with all its pain and sorrow. Why would we leave an environment where there is only love and understanding (according to all the brochures) to come to this one where there seems to be such persistent darkness everywhere we turn? Why would we dare to trust only to be betrayed? Why would we dare to love someone, only to have them die and leave us behind? Why would we dare to build what someone or something else could destroy? Why would we dare to plan a future we have no guarantee of experiencing? Why would we do any of these things? Is choosing to do them even remotely the sign of a sane person, let alone the sign of a higher consciousness?
And then I thought about the people who climb Mt. Everest. Every year many attempt this monster of a mountain, and many years, someone dies. A girl I went to high school with lost her father to Everest. Everyone knows this is no daytrip one does as a lark. Every single one of these people knows it’s possible that they might not make it back down alive. But still they go. They set a goal to reach the summit and they train and they train, and they endure great hardship as they climb, losing gear, and toes, and perhaps friends. Some parts of the way are so treacherous that when people die there, their bodies are left where they fall, and they can be seen from the more popular routes. I can only imagine the chilling effect it has on those who presume they are made of stuff tough enough to reach the top; I dare say everyone who has made the attempt thought likewise. Climbers push their bodies to the maximum, and some of them never make it to the top, because it’s just too hard and they must turn back, or the mountain claims them. And the rest of us marvel at the adventurous spirit that drives them to attempt such an arduous journey, both physically and emotionally.
I’m sure they get frustrated sometimes. I’m sure they cry, and wonder how they can go on. Or they are exhausted, but beat themselves up, wondering how they can quit now, having come so far. As I understand it, they can only spend maybe half an hour at the “top of the world,” because there is so little oxygen, and it is so cold, and there’s still a long trip back to the base camp before dark. Half an hour spent in a place they probably spent a year, or maybe a lifetime, preparing for. But somehow, despite all the difficulties, getting to the top makes it all worth it, as they look around and see the world in 360 degrees.
And the people keep coming, despite the risks and the hardships they know will befall them. It’s grueling, unpredictable, and frequently unsafe, and yet it is not without its rewards. The learning, the sense of accomplishment, the teammates that make it possible to continue and to succeed, the beauty of the views along the way, the feeling of being alive on the edge.
And it made me wonder: What if this earthly life is the Mt. Everest of the soul?
If this mindset is common in the human mind, at least among the most adventurous of us who climb mountains and do extreme sports just to feel the pure energy of being alive, does it not seem possible that a higher mind, our own higher mind, might choose this life as a Mt. Everest of sorts?
I mean, it is certainly an adventure, filled with love and passion and hate and misery. Ecstatic highs and lows so low you feel certain there is no returning from them, and the miracle when you realize you have survived the fire after all. Physical agony, and the indescribable bliss of orgasm visited upon the same body. Miracles every day, everywhere you look. Beauty to make you weep, and ugliness to make you numb. Amazements that all the poets in all times still have not managed to catalogue completely, and possibly never will.
Life is littered with bodies, symbolic and actual, left in the ice where they are, but all of us who pass them will carry them with us to the top of the mountain, back down it, and forever after. And I think that although I will never climb Mt. Everest, perhaps I know what those who do go through. This life is tough enough climb for me.
That said, what if the same adventurous, confident spirit that drives climbers to climb Mt. Everest is what drives every last one of us to come to this world and climb our individual mountains? What if we come into this life quite aware of the risks…and the rewards? Quite aware of the potential pain and the possible joy? And yet we still come, just to feel the pure energy of being alive.
What if that is who we truly are?
I have been ruminating on the draft for this post for days, and somehow I have found myself loath to settle down and finish it. And I think it’s because if I credit this perspective with any merit at all, it requires of something of me. It makes me responsible, and paradoxically free, in deeper and vaster ways than I’ve imagined before, and I guess I wasn’t sure if I was ready to receive that memo. I thought I was responsible and free before, but this is a whole other thing. But if I consider the possibility that this life is just such an adventure, undertaken with clear-minded intent, knowing the inherent risks, including the reality that there will be some I never planned for and will not be prepared to deal with until I’m in the middle of it and have no choice but to do so, and I chose to be born anyway, what does that mean for my life? And if I truly believe that death is a doorway and not an ending, what does that mean for my life, now?
I think it means that there is nothing to fear. That there is nothing to hate. There is nothing to curse. There is nothing to blame. There is nothing but to bundle myself against the cold, hold on to the ropes as I climb (with tired bloody hands, if necessary), to endure the icy winds, to say a prayer when I pass those who climbed as far as they could but were unable to go on, and to make use of good guides when they present themselves, because I knew it was going to be this way. Because I knew I would also encounter beauty and love that would take my breath away.
The question is not, “Is this true?”; I don’t presume to understand the universe. The question is, “Can I live as if this is true?” I don’t know. Would it make me feel stronger and more patient? It very well could. If I believed that in me lived the soul of an intrepid explorer and collector of experiences who foresaw the challenges possible in this life and said, “Sure, I get that, but I’m still going,” what could I possibly fear?
That’ll keep you up nights.