The Wonder (and Fear) of Immensity

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Looking west to the Aloha Basin and Crystal Range (Pyramid Peak at left).

What is it that we seek in the mountains? What is the interest in arriving at a summit? When we begin our trek, we are often able to look up and see our destination, as in the picture below of Mt. Tallac (South Tahoe, CA) – just a shade below 10,000 feet in elevation. At first glance, considering the thousands of vertical feet separating us from our aspired destination can be intimidating; we are so small in comparison! When we think about – and feel – the cumulative effect of the hours (sometimes days or weeks, depending on the mountain) it will take us to reach the summit, a deep heaviness can settle over us; the shadow of impossibility. Regardless of our preparation and fitness, we can lose our sense of the moment in anticipation of the difficulty, pain and discomfort to come.

Yet, even as we feel this – even as our conscious mind rationally assesses the risks involved (e.g., psyches us out!) – we continue stepping forward in three feet increments (or so), the landscape changing around us as we ascend. Assuming we’ve been smart to pack sufficient water and calories (and layers), our sense of confidence begins to shift; we start looking down at places we were just walking through an hour before. Typically, we lose sight of the summit the nearer we get – a sign we are approaching. Suddenly we feel less heavy, buoyed by this growing proximity.

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Sitting (perching) at the summit, we experience a sense of weightlessness – we feel as though we are hovering over vast expanses, the way birds must as they drift on air currents. Up in higher places we have a visceral sensation of how immense the world is; we drink in its volume even as we struggle with the thinner air.

Rather than deter us, the doubts and fear we felt 3,000 feet below served to sharpen our senses to our surroundings. Through prolonged effort, we let go of our anxieties (not all irrational) and settled into the task, the pleasure of genuine, hard work. The more we do this, the more we recognize those early sensations of hesitation, trepidation; we must let them surface and, with time, circulate out of our system. What others might view as a stopping point becomes our prompt to push. 

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Easterly winds almost pushed us backwards; despite fires to the south the air was lucid and vibrant. Another dimension of higher elevations: exposure and vulnerability to the elements.

One “mountain” I have scaled often is the 600+ foot Ring Mountain, just up the street from where I live. Above is a view at sunrise from the summit, looking west toward Mt. Tamalpais – our guardian and muse. After 11 years of living here, I have easily taken 1,000 walks and runs along its contours – most of those in the company of my dog, always immersed in thought (the fault of open spaces!). Despite its modest size, I experience similar feelings before beginning to climb as I do in higher mountains.

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Summiting a mountain is an oft-cited metaphor (including in this post); as it pertains to our lives and professions, I see it often used to mean the “struggle to the top” – the point at which we have achieved ultimate success. However, as anyone who has climbed mountains knows, the real success is in a safe descent; true grit and toughness emerge as we make our way to the bottom. As it pertains to education, the true challenge isn’t in arriving at any endpoint (summit), rather continuing to push ourselves to confront – and embrace – new challenges. If we have arrived at a particular peak (a plateau in our practice, a stagnation of creative possibilities) then we know it is time to seek a new one. Climbing mountains simply makes us want to climb more mountains.

This does not mean a new position necessarily, rather a new context (physical, mental) in which we can become explorers again.

This blog began two-and-a-half years ago as a place to think about my work as a school co-pilot – an assistant principal.

2 thoughts on “The Wonder (and Fear) of Immensity

  1. Not only am I excited for you, I am excited to be taking a similar journey with the full knowledge that we can always look to each other for support, or just a shoulder in those moments we will without doubt experience. Congrats my friend.

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