You’ve probably seen the recent headlines about a “traffic jam” on Mt. Everest, as hundreds of would-be “conquerors” line up to ascend the tallest mountain in the world. You may also have seen reports of several recent deaths, among those either ascending or descending the Great Mountain. Now, I confess to a certain grudging admiration for these climbers—particularly those who, while “handicapped” in some way, nevertheless struggle up to the summit. There is surely something admirable in the “can-do” spirit and determination of these mountaineers.
And yet, from the spiritual perspective, I wonder if these bold individuals are scaling the wrong mountain.
In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary–along with Nepalese Sherpa, Tenzig Norgay—was the first climber known to have reached the summit of Mt. Everest. This renowned explorer, mountaineer and philanthropist once made the following comment: “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” I believe this insight resonates with the deep spiritual traditions of many faiths. For example, the Talmud asks us, “Who is mighty?” and answers, “The one who masters his passions.” (Pirke Avot, 4.1). In the Christian tradition, Thomas a Kempis asks, “Who has a fiercer struggle than he who strives to conquer himself?” (from “On the Teaching of Truth”). The Buddhist and Stoic traditions are also replete with references to the goal of self-mastery.
Climbing Mt. Everest is certainly a feat requiring discipline, tenacity, and a kind of courage. But it is also a feat that puts oneself—and often, others—at terrible risk. I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if all those who spend days, weeks, and months scaling mountains used their time to build a school, visit the sick, or raise money for those with life-threatening illnesses. (In fairness, Sir Edmund himself devoted much of his life to building schools and hospitals for the Sherpa people of Nepal). More than that: I wonder if the time spent conquering the peaks of the Himalayas might be better devoted to conquering the tempestuous spirit within each of us.
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