We hiked with friends yesterday in Painted Canyon in the lovely Mecca Hills near Indio, California. As we walked up the river bed, we came up to a series of ladders that made the rock cliff face of the stream bed possible to ascend. I always wonder about my fascination with climbing. I know that I prefer these hikes where I climb up, especially to a height that affords a view. Is it the struggle and effort that makes it worthwhile to me? Obstacles, bridges, cable cars, and ladders seem to add to my sense of adventure.
In many wisdom traditions and holy stories, ladders have offered an ancient and rich spiritual metaphor.
What follows is an expanded retelling of a simple teaching story by the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.
I offer is as a parable for what I think is happening to many of us as we experience ‘the second half of life’. I know that whenever I tell this story in groups, there are smiles and chuckles, which are often a marker of resonance and truth telling…
Every person, on the great journey through life encounters a ladder. It is leaned up against an incredibly tall wall. Although the bottom rungs look solid and thick, the ladder ascends so high that it is hard to see the top. We look up, and we are filled with curiosity. Where does this ladder end? What is above me? What amazing place must be at the top of this experience?
(Observe most small children and a ladder or a set of stairs. There seems to be a universal human urge to put a hand on the ladder, to look up, and to begin to climb.)
And so we start to climb. As we grasp our first tentative rung, as we feel our feet leave the ground, applause breaks out. Our parents are so pleased! Our mentors shout out to us: ‘Hurray!” and “Up you go!”…
And up we go.
The climbing gets easier as we become more confident, as we find a rhythm between hands and feet, as our muscles adjust to this new sensation of climbing. Soon we are far above our parents and loved ones, yet we still value and hear their applause and encouragement.
We also begin to notice that we can see further than we ever could on the ground. This is heady stuff. The vista of our world expands We realize that the increasing height gives us greater sight and understanding; this surpasses all we saw or knew at the base of the ladder. And along with the cheers of support, this rush of seeing and expansion of awareness is more than enough to keep us climbing higher.
The height is stunning. We look down and realize that we can now only faintly hear those below us. They have all become smaller and somehow less significant.
It is all about the climb.
Accompanying the exhilaration of climbing, the habit and rhythm of hands and feet, the cheers of praise we have now internalized, and the expanding sight of new heights, we also have discovered a rush of excitement of reaching the top. This is surely what life is about!
Finally, after sustained effort, we begin to sense we are getting close. Maybe four or five rungs are now visible above our head. And above this is open space… the tips of the ladder pointing into the sky… the edge of the wall… the destiny of our lives.
Here we are. At the top. We place our hand on this highest rung and pull ourselves up to see what is over the edge of this incredibly tall wall… alas, we experience a universal human experience.
The ladder is against the wrong wall.
There is nothing here- just the top rim of the wall. There is nothing more to do. There is nowhere else to go.
And so we cling for a moment to the top of ladder. We take a final look around.
We have no choice.
And so we begin to climb down. We descend back into our lives. We return home to where we started. We begin the long descent… the descent into becoming who we are.