December 29, 2013

Lessons a Rock Taught Me. ~ Charlie Vensel

I had to get up this mountain—call it pride if you will—and learn something about getting up the next one.

I was recently invited to join some friends on an eight-day back-country camping trip in Buena Vista, Colorado. We would hike from about 8,500′ to about 11,500′, above the tree-line, llama team in tow and fly fish for our dinner.

Awesome! All things I love!

The challenge? It’s been about five years since I moved from Colorado to the Appalachian foothills and I just don’t have my altitude lungs anymore. This would be strenuous to say the least. Also, I’m just not in the shape I was in five years ago either.

Recognizing that I did not have the time to lose as much weight as I wanted, nor would I develop alpine skill in a few short weeks, I thought it would be wise to find something nearby that would challenge me so that I knew what I was getting myself into.

I chose Table Rock Mountain in Pickens, South Carolina as it had about the same altitude gain over a similar distance we would face in Colorado. It only took about 300 yards into the hike to recognize how challenging Buena Vista would be; Table Rock was one of the most physically challenging things I can remember doing in a long time.

It was kicking my butt.

Drenched in sweat and heart pounding in my ears, looking for something redemptive in the moment, I decided I would make this mountain a metaphor for the great challenges in my life, past, present and future.

Here is what the Table Rock taught me as the hike progressed.

How many things have I started with great zeal, only to be met with great challenge in the first few hundred yards, and then just quit?

I don’t know about you, but a dozen things come to mind pretty quickly for me.

The excuses were all along the lines of, “I’m not as prepared as I thought I was. This isn’t that rewarding. I would never make it anyway. Just not for me.” Sometimes those excuses were rational and accurate, but even still I think they served as justification to throw in the towel before giving it my best.

In this instance, I decided to press through that initial hardship instead of turning back.

How many times have I stopped something because I was worried about other people seeing me struggle?

This time, more than a dozen things come to mind; more like dozens, maybe even hundreds. I was hiking with a friend who was ten years older, and would tell you he needs to lose 30 pounds himself. He was not gasping for air, and he was moving at a pretty good clip. Sweaty? Yes, but clearly he was in better shape.

Maybe there’s something in here about why I prefer to be alone in so many things?

Now yes, I am an introvert and I make no apologies for that, but I suspect there are many things I have not engaged in with a group because of the fear of people seeing me struggle. That is the voice of the perfectionist, who as we all know, makes the fatal mistake of deriving his or her validation from the opinion of others. Better not to try and make a fool of myself rather than try and not do it perfectly, or at least better than the other guy, right?

I remember after about the first half-mile of the hike telling my patient friend, “I’m determined to make it to the top, but if I’m slowing you down, please go on ahead.” I know that sounds polite and noble, but I think I was really asking not to be seen struggling. He didn’t bite, probably because he wasn’t sure I wouldn’t just turn around and head back to the car as soon as he got out of sight, or because he thought I would just pass out and be unattended to.

I had to ask myself, “What would it be like to be vulnerable?”

I wasn’t going to complain, but there was no way I could hide how hard this was for me. I pressed on, huffing and puffing, leaving a small stream of my sweat and a lot of my pride on the trail.

What would happen if I picked the pace that worked for me rather than some unrealistic perfectionist standard, or a standard set by someone else?

If you know me, you know I’m 5’8” on a good posture day—which is like a good hair day. I have a 28” inseam. My legs are short! Most people, even short people like me, have a couple of extra inches on their legs and their strides are much longer. I notice that walking in the parking lot after dinner with friends. It really shows up doing something physical. Normally, I just work a little harder to keep up, but that wasn’t going to work this time.

Rather than telling myself I had to keep up with the pace set by another, I found a pace that worked for me. I had to let go of even more pride and just accept it.

What I found was that at working at my pace, things became considerably more manageable and a lot more enjoyable.

What if my way is OK even if it were not the way most others would do it, could do it, or should do it?

There’s some tremendous freedom in asking that question and living into it positively. I wonder how many times I shortchanged myself because of the need to meet the standard set by others, or an unrealistic standard I set myself. I’m thinking, “Too many.”

What would happen if I celebrated mile-markers more often?

Every half mile there was a trail marker. The first few served to remind me only how much farther we had to go. I was almost indignant, critical of myself for not doing better and discouraged at how little progress I had made after so much hard work.

After 1.5 miles, I had a real sense that I was working against myself in cursing, “These blasted markers.” Normally, I’m bent more towards the positive; I’ll blame my negativity on the stress this time, but even still it is a poor excuse. That’s when we need to be the most positive. As soon as I realized what I was doing, I shifted thinking from how little progress I had made and all of the struggles thus far, to looking forward to the next little success.

I had a mini-party every time I passed another marker. I need to celebrate the mile-markers in life more often and more significantly. Not only does it sound wise, but it also sounds fun. Who doesn’t want more fun?

What would happen if I took the encouragement of others to heart more often?

My friend was great. He was patient; he was content to let me work at my pace. He’d often get farther ahead and when I’d pass through where he had been, I’d find a little stack of rocks. Sounds silly, I know, but he was encouraging me.

He had made this hike dozens of times. He knew the way. He knew when discouragement would set in.

He knew when to offer motivation. I was grateful, that even though I could not see him, I was not alone and I knew that he had not forgotten me; he had my best interest at heart.

When I think back on how many times people more wise and experienced offered help to me, and I politely turned them down, determined to do it on my own, I’m a little dismayed. When I think about how many times people offered me encouragement, and I chose not to receive it, I’m a little more dismayed.

Independence can be a great thing, a necessary thing. However, if it is born out of self-protection, it really is dysfunction, not virtue.

The truth is, I need people more than I think. I need to stop, receive their encouragement, hear their counsel, ask for help, and generally be more vulnerable and trusting. I’m certain that I would not have completed this hike without his guidance, encouragement and trusted friendship. What would life look like if I let more of that into my life? I’m thinking, “Pretty good.”

What would happen if I were more thankful for the level ground?

Occasionally, there would be a small section of trail that had some level ground, relatively free of rocks and roots. It would be still and quiet. It was nice and provided great rest for my aching body. At times, I actually caught my breath and the gentle breeze dried my sopping wet shirt. Yet, I must admit, I spent a lot of that valuable downtime fretting about what was coming up next. I don’t think I fully entered into the rest that was being provided.

How many times do I do that in my life? Again, “Too many.”

I think this is really a lesson in gratitude. I’m reminded of a Scripture verse, “Do not despise the days of small things.” (Zech4:10) I have room to be more grateful for the little things and the slow times. They are meant to be times of rejuvenation for mind, body, and soul.

What would happen if I saw major obstacles as a series of single steps rather than an insurmountable wall of terror?

This really is Project Management and Goal Setting 101 here. Yet I admit I lost sight of it when I saw 100 yards of nearly vertical path ahead of me, requiring me to crawl/climb on all fours to make it. I got to this point and asked, “Really? After hiking 2.5 miles in, this close to the pinnacle, really? If I’ve still got a mile to go, what else could be lurking out there to overcome?” The last 1/3rd of this hike is the most challenging, and the first 2/3rds were extremely difficult.

I could feel discouragement sinking in when I saw that wall.

I’d come too far to turn around. I had to go up. I took me a while, but rather than looking at the daunting top of the wall of terror, I just looked at my next step and my next handhold. As long as I focused on the next small thing, rather than the whole thing, I kept my perspective and did not enter into overwhelm. If I looked towards the top, I only felt defeated. If I looked at only what was next, I felt motivated. That sounds like a pretty good life lesson to me.

How many times have I quit, just a few feet before the pinnacle without even being aware?

Several times after the wall of terror, the mountain opened up to some tremendous views. Each time I thought, “I made it!” and was fully ready to sit down and enjoy the view. Fortunately, I realized as nice as these destinations were, there was something greater ahead. “Thank you,” to the signs that read, “Table Rock Pinnacle Trail This Way.”

I started thinking that there were times I may well have stopped short of all that was available because I thought I had reached the end. What if I had reached was good, but the best was just around the corner? I have no way of knowing how many times this may have happened in my life; maybe never, maybe often, I’ll never know.

I think in reaching future goals, I’ll spend a little more time massaging the outcome to see if there is not more available. It would be a pity to settle for good when the best is available.

What would happen if I didn’t just rush back down the mountain?

Closely related to the lesson above, we finally reached the top. It was amazing! I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment and in spite of the challenge, really was kind of high on thinking about these life lessons on the way up. We had a great lunch, rested, hydrated and an all-around great time enjoying the best that was just around the corner. We spent maybe an hour basking in the moment.

Then, I stood up and realized how sore my legs were. My first thought was that of being in the air-conditioned car back in the parking lot. It was as if almost all the joy was now over and it was time to go back to work.

I’d come too far to let that attitude settle in. I decided I would take note of the whole hike down. I would use this opportunity to remember these lessons, see the challenging spots from a different perspective, kind of let it all soak in, and celebrate the accomplishments.

How many times have I just checked something off the list and asked, “OK, what’s next?” Again, I think, “Too many.”

This really was a lesson in living in the moment, being fully present. Taking this attitude, I noticed so much more on the way down than I did on the way up. The whole trip was enjoyable because of it, not just half. I’m thinking I need to work on being more fully present in every moment.

What if I could remember all of this the next time I face a major challenge?

Well, that’s the most important lesson of all.

It is not that I did not know these things before, and I usually live these lessons consistently. The difficulty comes in when great challenge arises; sometimes we just seem to forget everything we know for a season. So, if I find myself in a major challenge, and I’m sure I will at some point, I think I will remember two things, what I was thinking at the top of Table Rock and what I was thinking back down in the parking lot. If I could make it up and down this mountain by these lessons, I can make it through most any challenge with them as well.

Follow-up post from the Buena Vista trip: I made it, remembering most all of these lessons. One more lesson I learned in Colorado, “Ask for help when I need it.”

Want 15 free additional reads weekly, just our best?

Get our weekly newsletter.

Assistant Editor: Alicia Wozniak/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Author’s own

Leave a Thoughtful Comment

Read 0 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Charlie Vensel