Conditioned to Climb: Personal Reflections on “The Climber”

From the moment we’re born, society begins to shape our ideas about what’s important in life. Almost immediately, the reactions of people around us teach us that unhappiness is an unacceptable state. Our parents don’t necessarily consider immediate happiness to be the most important thing in our young lives—at least not in theory—but it’s unlikely we’ll emerge from those early stages of childhood without it residing near the top of our list, often trumping things like generosity and self-control.

As we become more aware of the world, the media and our peers step in to show us exactly what we need to do, buy and look like in order to be happy. As we start to make decisions for ourselves, well-meaning authority figures urge us to follow safe and familiar paths, afraid that taking risks and breaking new ground might lead us through hardship and misery. Don’t try to be radical or different, society cautions. Just follow this well-established happiness formula. If you do these acceptable things in this accepted order, you’ll be successful, secure and—most importantly—happy.

Of course, there comes a point where many people question what they’ve been conditioned to believe about happiness. Perhaps they’ve followed “the formula” to the letter, yet still find themselves unhappy. Perhaps they see someone who’s gone a different way, yet seems happier than they are. Perhaps they detect the stench of materialism and corporate greed behind much of society’s “wisdom” about happiness. Perhaps they read what Jesus said about it. Perhaps they begin to wonder if they even know what happiness is, and whether it really is the most important thing in life.

In 2007, I chose to marry my wife—the first woman I had ever dated—at the age of twenty-three, before I had completed my schooling or gotten my career figured out. A few years later, I resigned from a stable, corporate position at a great company to become the stay-at-home parent of a one-income family. Nobody could call these bad decisions in any absolute sense, but they certainly weren’t “safe” ones. Both involved significant risk and the defiance of expectations—including some of my own—about who I should be and what I should want out of life. As it turns out, both rank among the best decisions I’ve ever made. The question I’ve pondered since is, why? Was I just lucky, or was there something about the decision-making process that worked in my favor?

The Climber was borne out of my reflections on those junctures—and about why, despite some inevitable hardships, I have no regrets about either one. In both cases, I knew I was choosing the hard path up the mountain, one that would take me along cliffs and through valleys and might never lead to the top. But so what? I didn’t care about reaching the top. I wanted to explore the mountain. That’s where life happens. I’d been given the opportunity to invest in things that mattered far more than material dividends, and I didn’t see the point of waiting for some hypothetical future stability that would just be an illusion anyway.

I’m not saying there’s no such thing as “the wrong time,” or that there’s never a good reason to put something off. Success in any endeavor depends heavily on one’s ability to delay gratification. My wife and I wanted kids long before we had them, and it was tempting to ignore the fact that we weren’t ready. In that case, waiting those few extra years was the right choice. At the same time, it’s important to have a solid understanding of why you are (or are not) putting off something important. If someone tells you,

“Slow down! You’ll have plenty of time for that later in life.”

or,

“That opportunity isn’t going anywhere.”

or,

“That thing you really want to do will be much easier if you get such-and-such out of the way first.”

you might want to politely remind them—or at very least, keep in mind for yourself—that there’s no way they can possibly know that. The future holds no guarantees. All we have to work with is the present. While it’s true that the thing you want right now isn’t necessarily the right thing, it isn’t necessarily the wrong thing, either.

Society conditions us to make decisions based on what will make us happy, either now or in the future. Ask yourself: is that really a worthwhile goal? Isn’t feeling happy just that: a feeling? Feelings come and go with the winds of circumstance. Lasting contentment (a state of mind that runs deeper than feelings) comes from being and doing what you were created to be and do, now and in the future. So dig down deep, find that thing, and be that. Do that. Anything else is a waste of time.

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