“You know you’re trying your hardest when your ‘climbing’ becomes a series of falls punctuated by a few glorious moments of holding on,” a friend once said to me.
You might call this the ragged edge of climbing, where we feel no flow, only frustration. The impossibility of the task whelms up and over us, an impenetrable wall, and we wonder why we’re even wasting our time.
This is a job for someone else, an inner voice opines. Better to give up now and find something more… attainable.
But some other part of us sees the faintest glint of possibility—or not even sees, but intuits it, stretches out towards an irrational belief, bolstered only by the knowledge that there’s nothing to lose for trying.
And so we fight on. Against the forces of doubt and inertia, towards a hope barely visible.
And still we fall. Each time the boulder rolls back down the hill. Each time we endeavor to roll it back up, like that old Greek story.
Maybe the story gets it wrong, though. Maybe Sisyphus wasn’t just compelled by the gods to roll his boulder up the hill. Maybe he chose to roll it because he believed one day he might grow strong enough to push it all the way up, past the limits of his vision to some distant crest.
With every fall and every failure, some lesson is learned, however subtle. Sometimes it’s as simple as “rest longer between attempts.” Other times it’s as minor as “crimp the hold rather than open-hand it,” or “turn the hip a few degrees more to the left.” Often we must remind ourselves of the most automatic of things, like “breathe.”
Just to breathe. Just to focus on the task at hand without the weight of context on our backs. This is all we have to do, but it can be a lot to ask, because our monkey minds are busy: Will I get hurt if I fall from here? Will I have energy to try again if I don’t do it this time? Who will see me fail? Will I disappoint myself? The monkey mind is strong and cunning…
Sooner or maybe later, we see the possibility of success grow brighter. Unbroken sequences of movement grow longer. We find solutions to moves that once seemed inscrutable. Piece by piece, the impenetrable wall yields.
Now, instead of small islands of success in a sea of failure, an archipelago arcs gracefully into the water, broken only here and there by cruxes.
Finally, we enter the state of flow and a complete bridge appears. “Here” is connected to “there.” But even as we near the top, there’s uncertainly. A final anxiety grips us so firmly, we’re apt to falter on some easy move that we’ve climbed many times before.
Sisyphus’ boulder nears the top of the hill. The end of his struggle is at hand. The impossible has become possible, and yet…
The boulder hasn’t changed. The hill still holds the same incline, the same length. From the top, he looks out and sees no grand answer or tangible reward, only another hill, and behind that more hills without end. The thing that’s changed is his perspective. The only answer is he’s gained is to the question: “Is it possible?” but the affirmation fulfills only momentarily.
What does he do then? He sets his gaze on the tallest peak in eyeshot and plots a course, to see if that one is possible, too.
How is this any different than the climber who, at the end of her project, is already thinking of the next project even as her belayer lowers her back to earth?
Two questions come to mind: Is this all there is? and If so, is there anything wrong with that?