We evolve at the rate of the tribe we’re plugged into.
There is a myth to which many of us still subscribe, that it is somehow better, or more noble, or “only counts” if we do it alone. I recently saw a woman on the news who had been out climbing in Colorado by herself when she fell off the trail and broke her arm. She spent a cold, scary night alone on the mountain until she was rescued the next morning by a group of hikers. “I will never go mountain climbing on my own again!” she promised.
I bring this up because the journey of above the line living is a lot like climbing a mountain. It’s foolhardy to do it on your own. It’s far too easy to fall off the trail, perhaps even down a deep crevasse (one of my favorite metaphors for getting stuck below the line), when you aren’t roped in to your fellow climbers. Our climbing buddies can help us by throwing down a rope or by pointing out that we’re no longer on the trail.
You see, on a real mountain, we tend to notice when we’ve fallen off. On the spiritual journey, it’s often not so clear. Some of our crevasses have become quite well-worn and familiar. We’ve even furnished them to make our time there more comfortable. Picture, for a moment, the crevasse of self-pity, where soft, comfy couches murmur soothingly “It’s not your fault, it’s their fault. They shouldn’t treat you like that. It isn’t fair.” Or the crevasse of righteous anger with lots of spiky stalagtites for hanging judgments and condemnations. Or a personal favorite, the crevasse of aloofness, a labyrinth of icy polished walls where I can wander alone for days on end.
A good climbing buddy helps us leave behind the comfort of the familiar for the sake of becoming our truer selves. They aren’t seduced by our persuasive arguments about how much we have been victimized, how right we are, or that we don’t really need any help. They understand that it’s all part of the process and that we always have a choice. And most importantly, they help us remember who we really are, especially when we have temporarily forgotten this ourselves. And let’s not forget that they take turns breaking the trail, inspire us, and cheer us on up the mountain.
This certainly isn’t the “normal” way we have learned to relate to one another. A common occurrence for dedicated climbers is the realization that there are people in our lives— good friends and sometimes family members—who are more interested in joining us in the crevasse than on the mountain. In fact, these people can become angry and resentful when we climb our way out of self- pity or righteous anger, feeling they are being abandoned.
This brings up choices in the relationship: One, you can slide back down and join them where they are, indulging in those below the line parts of yourself. (Just be aware that this strategy gets more and more uncomfortable as you continue your journey up the mountain, and at some point will become impossible.) Two, you can go down the seductive crevasse of spiritual superiority by judging them for being negative and “not as evolved as me.” Many climbers get stuck here for a good long time, forgetting that their commitment to being on the mountain does not make them better than others. Three, you can offer a hand up, inviting your friend to join you on the expedition. Sometimes, they are ready and will come along, and then you are both blessed with a deeper friendship. And four (probably the hardest), you can love them and allow them to be where they are with no condemnation or judgment on your part. In my experience, this takes disentangling yourself from their drama and finding a way to stay connected without taking on any responsibility for their experience. At times this requires being willing to set boundaries (some people can be quite persistent about wanting you to join them in their crevasse) while still holding the other person in your heart.
One last word about being climbing buddies for each other: we are not perfect, nor are we expected to be. Sometimes we fail to notice when someone has gone off the mountain, and sometimes we just don’t have any rope to throw. We can all easily find many examples when we have failed, and maybe you are even thinking of some now. I want to challenge you to remember the times you have succeeded. The times you have been a mountaineer of extraordinary capacity. The time you found the strength to hold someone who was awash in grief without getting lost yourself. The time you encouraged a child to do the thing they thought they couldn’t. The time your honesty and integrity served as an example for others. The time you told your difficult story, not because you wanted pity, but because you knew your courage could inspire. The time you had nothing to go on but faith and you walked forward anyway. And all the times you shared a favorite book, poem or song because you knew someone else would be touched, or simply looked into a friend’s eyes and said “I believe in you.” This, my friend, is who you are. Just remember that, and know we all need a hand up out of the crevasse from time to time.