When my boys were young we decided to take a hike with our extended family to tour a cave in the mountains near our home. The trail rises nearly 1,100 feet over a mile and a half of steep switchbacks. The day was clear, and beautiful. We set off in the morning in order to beat the heat, or so we thought. None of us had actually made the hike before.
The first several switchbacks were no problem. We were laughing, joking, teasing and just generally enjoying one another. The kids, two eight-year-olds and two three-year-olds, we joyfully picking up rocks, racing to the corners, and watching for squirrels. It was idyllic….for approximately thirty minutes…when we reached the collective agreement that our family was in over our heads.
Not only was the trail more strenuous than we expected, the day was hotter, and our water supply much too small.
Little known fact: Three year old children are not programmed to soldier on, sacrifice their own comfort for the comfort of others, or keep complaints to themselves.
Thus, when one toddler chose to sit in the middle of the trail and refused to take another step. This decision resonated with the other. There we were. Six sweating, gasping adults, two newly three year old children precariously balanced on the edge of full-blown tantrum, and two annoyed eight year old boys who kept encouraging our progress with statements like, “Oh, come on! Am I going to be this slow when I’m old? Why don’t we just wait for you guys at the top?” Only the strength of the parental bond preserved the lives of those two boys.
That same bond set two fathers to the task of carrying toddlers on their shoulders, up a mountain, in ninety degree summer heat. Their shirts were soaked through. They were probably dehydrated. They most certainly developed back aches. The older boys were directed to look for lizards, squirrels, interesting rocks – basically anything that would slow their pace and keep them happy. The rest of us huffed and puffed and prayed to make it to the next bench!
After approximately twice the estimated time it takes to climb the mountain, our family arrived – alive and together – at the top of the mountain. We were relieved, ecstatic, exhausted and proud. There was definitely a sense of accomplishment as we looked out at the valley below. Then one of the kids pointed to the mountain peak across the valley and exclaimed that he had never seen those cliffs from so “close up” before. He wondered aloud when he would get the chance to make that climb.
I often compare life to mountain climbing when I talk to my kids about challenges. It helps that we live at the base of the Rocky Mountains and often spend time hiking, camping, fishing and enjoying the beauty of nature.
Life is hard. It can be overwhelming at times. Just like it was for us on that hot summer morning, it can be easy to fixate on how much of the trail lies ahead of you, and forget about how much of the trail you have already conquered. It pays to remind our children just how far they have come.
My boy with dyslexia was feeling down about his inability to decipher the words in a novel he was particularly interested in reading. The words were just too small, the font too squared off, and the pages too crowded. There was no way he was going to read that book on his own. He slipped into negative vocabulary to describe himself and his ability to read. Rather than correct him verbally, I handed him one of his early readers and asked him to read aloud to me. He read the book quickly, easily, and with a high level of annoyance. When he finished, I sat with him and reminded him of how difficult the reader was for him only one year ago. How he struggled, cried and became frustrated by words that are now so easy for him to read.
Then, knowing how much he wanted to read this series of books, I suggested we download the audio books and have our devices read aloud while he followed along. I reminded him that accomplishing a goal through honest effort is what matters, not the exact type of effort. He was happy, and more importantly, he could see just how far he had come.
After our family completed the tour of the cave we had so arduously hiked to, the realization set in that our hike wasn’t over. We had to retrace our steps back down that mile and a half, now dropping 1,100 feet. We couldn’t not descend the mountain. We couldn’t stand on the top and glory indefinitely in our victory.
I was reminded of this truth recently when a speaker at one of my church meetings said, “Everyone loves it on the top of the mountain. But remember, you have to climb back down if you ever hope to hike up to the top of a taller mountain.”
Moments of great victory, celebration, joy and accomplishment are wonderful. They are also rare when compared to life as a whole. Most of our moments are spent hiking up toward victory, back down into defeat, and then back up to a higher moment of victory. Life happens on the trail. Life is redirecting our energetic kids in order to preserve our own sanity. Life is carrying others who just cannot take even one more step. Life is huffing and puffing and sweating and praying that we find that next bench and receive a blessed moment of rest. Life is celebrating the view from the top, then squaring up our shoulders and taking the next step forward – especially when that next step leads us right back into the trenches.
Life is messy. Life is hard. Life is full of pain and promise and trial and truth. Sometimes we are so swamped by the enormity of the trail ahead, that we forget to look around and see the lizards and leaves, the rocks and the vast beauty of the sky above. When we are at our lowest and stand, cold, in the shadow of the mountains, it is hard to remember that we are standing poised to conquer our next, higher, victory.
It is vital that we bring others with us on our journeys. That we pick up those we find struggling along the way and offer encouragement when we can. It is equally vital that we accept the love and encouragement offered to us.
Life really is like climbing a mountain. It is fraught with peril. It is surprisingly difficult and breathtaking in it’s awe and beauty.