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ideas for a new earth

  • Abigail Wilson

View from the Top: How goals distract us from true achievement

I remember a bracing day when I sat on top of the world, looking down. Actually, I was a few feet below and a long ridgeline away from the top of the world, and was looking up at it. That wasn’t the plan, but sometimes you realize that where you are is exactly where you intended to be.

We were able to see, from our expansive viewpoint, our folly at choosing a route. In trying to conquer as many mountains as possible, we had selected a cirque ringed by them, in which we slept and ate and dreamt of bathing. From that encircled valley, we could scramble up the flanks of several earthen behemoths. An excellent home base for adventure, right?

©Abigail Wilson 2022 : summit attempt of Capitol Peak

Now, the miles of rocky talus we had scaled lay sprawled below us, a monochrome sea of gray stumbling away from the ridge on the west and disappearing in ungainly curves towards our distant campsite. On the east side of the ridge, a clear path curved down past tree line, meandered across luminous meadows, and ended at the sparkling parking lot from which distant bodies originated - so close we could almost taste the asphalt.

A gentle climb, beautiful in each stage. Not short, but not tortuous either. What had we missed in our planning?

Perhaps if we had done this differently we would still be perched on these pebbles which were the summit of K2, the secondary peak - but after summiting Capitol Peak, after skimming across the Knife Edge. A secondary victory to add to the sweetness.

But that outcome wasn’t possible from the premises in which we started: climb as many mountains as possible. We didn’t prioritize easy routes, or picturesque ascents, or even doing a lot of research. We wanted to put on our backpacks and keep to our feet for the next eight days.

So here we are, with afternoon clouds gathering and our engines in need of refueling. Our choice of the less-traveled had already given me more than enough chances of death for one day, and I had no desire to risk storms on a ridgeline two feet wide. Even for another summit.

We talked about why we were here. (“Why are we here?!” my legs screamed.) We talked about our desire to stand higher than any stone, to witness jagged blue horizons disappearing into a vast, wild terrain. We talked about the ecstasy of exposure - the rushing and unerring focus of proximity with danger. We talked about these things, and we breathed them in. We were a thousand feet from our goal, and we turned around and abandoned it. We had already achieved everything we came for.

Sometimes what we want is hidden in what we think we don’t have. Sometimes the pinnacle is an interior height.

Only when we are truly open to our current experiences can we find the path to fulfillment. Only by deeply listening to the meaning of our present state - instead of imposing some fantasy upon it - can we recognize that we have already achieved our heart’s desire.

Goals live outside of us. The values we hold give meaning to those goals, give meaning to every aspect of our experience. Constancy in our values allows their expression to change while always bringing us to the experience, the impact, the relationships that truly matter to us. We each get to decide what achievement means for us - status, fulfillment, or simply the attempt.

When a goal becomes more about pain than beauty, trophies over gratification, checking in with my values shows me that the goal doesn’t fit anymore.

I happily soak up the sloping down of the earth around me. I listen to the song of the mountain and join the swallows joyfully surfing the rising wind. And I set my sights on a new goal: hot chili and clean socks.

©Abigail Wilson 2022: two hikers looking at the Maroon Bells peaks rising in the near distance


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