Written by: Robert Falk, Family Course Alum
In 1992, when I was 49 years old, I took a week-long Outward Bound course in the mountains of North Carolina. Early in the program I noticed that despite an extremely heavy backpack, constant rain, and some trails so steep that I had to rest after every two steps, I seldom enjoyed our rest periods. I grew irritated when an instructor stopped us to point out an interesting plant or bird. I didn’t think I would prove anything to myself unless I was at the point of absolute collapse but kept going.
The one thing I had been dreading about the trip was rock climbing. I’ve never been able to climb a rock or a tree and I’m afraid of falling, even with a safety line to catch me. We hiked through a gorge to an exposed granite face. One look at the relatively featureless rock had me convinced that I could not climb it, not even the first ten feet. I clipped myself to the safety line stretching out of sight to my belayer who would keep the slack out of the line so that when I fell it would be only a few feet.
I was surprised when I got off level ground and even more surprised when I kept making progress despite tough spots and setbacks. I was actually climbing, but I wasn’t pleased. I was in a battle with this damned rock and I wasn’t going to lose. I slipped and slid and occasionally had to give up hard-won altitude because I’d reached a spot too steep for me to hang on to. I watched the toes of my hiking boots being worn away on the sand paper-like surface. I imagined that soon my hands would start bleeding. I fought for every inch. I wanted to get it over with.
Eventually I could hear words of encouragement from the people at the top. They said they could see me. They said I was doing great. In my head I answered, “Well, I don’t feel great, but I’m going to beat this!” I pulled and sweated, grunted and swore, and finally got over the rim and was on all fours, facing my seated instructor. I ranted about the climb in terms of defeating a hated enemy. I’d gotten that ordeal out of the way; bring on the next one.
My instructor patted my hand and gently suggested ’Why don’t you look around and see where you are?”
I turned and saw a vista worthy of a symphony orchestra and a choir of angels! Without noticing, I had climbed out of the gorge and risen above the nearby hills to a spot where I could see the hazy, gentle ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains stretching to the distant horizon. The sky was an intense blue. The temperature was gentle; there was total silence. I began sobbing over the beauty of the scene, but also because I recalled what an instructor had told us the previous evening: the way you climb the mountain is the way you live your life. I sobbed because I had spent so much of my life with my vision fixed on the rock four inches in front of my face, never taking the time to see the beauty all around me.
Since that moment I‘ve tried to remind myself of the good parts of my life and of myself, because my tendency is to concentrate on what’s lacking. I worry that I will die embittered about what I never had because I usually fail to appreciate what I do have. I want to stop seeing my life as not big enough, not fabulous enough, not intense enough. I long to be satisfied with things as they are.