Early life is full of obstacles. Everything is new and the learning that you do in public, in front of your peers, allows for the possibility of humiliation.
Only later in life do you discover that while the challenges of adulthood are actually even more difficult, those same problems seem easier to negotiate because of the toughening derived from all the hits and misses of your formative years. The hard experience early on has made you stronger, at least if you did a reasonable job of learning things along the way.
Which reminds me of one of my high school challenges: learning how to climb a rope. In fact, life is a little bit like doing that.
References to moving up in the world abound. Everyone seems to want to get to the top.
In a high school gym of reasonable size, the rope hangs from a long distance away. My guess would be perhaps 25 feet up or more. The rope puts you in the position you have been in for much of your childhood: starting out at the bottom and spending a lot of your youth looking up — at your parents, your older siblings, your teachers, and all the things that seem impossibly out of reach because you are small.
And there you are, as the gym teacher tells you that you — yes, you — are supposed to climb the thing to the top. Today a rope, tomorrow the corporate ladder.
It is a solitary task. Just you and the rope. A little bit like you and the job of hitting a baseball, getting good SAT scores, making a career, winning a spouse. Your are on your own.
If you look at the top of the rope and think about how far away it is, how impossible is the task of getting there, you will have defeated yourself. Much like imagining how you might one day own a business or make a speech in front of hundreds of people or raise a family. Too far away and too troubling to think of until you get there, when it won’t seem so daunting after all. Of course, you don’t know that yet. Partly, because you haven’t yet climbed the rope.
If you wish, you can avoid the rope, try to pretend it’s not there, tell yourself that you don’t have to address that now. And, indeed, it will wait. The rope is very patient. Like all the problems of life, they continue to exist until we realize that we cannot escape them, that only by facing and mastering them do we really move beyond them, up and away.
No one told me or anyone in my gym class how to climb the rope. Indeed, I think that was intended to be part of the challenge. Like the rest of life, you have to be clever, think things through, watch others, and learn from experience before you can make much progress at mastering the coarse fiber that hangs there silent, implacable, and indifferent. It will not be the last time that you will confront the callousness of the world, and sometimes its disdain.
If you are anything like me, you won’t make it very far the first time you lay your hands on your threaded nemesis. You’ll worry too much, be self-conscious about those who are watching you, get stuck, slide back, and maybe suffer from rope burns as if your opponent is more than a “thing” and wants to inflict as much pain as possible. Life will do this to you too, just as you defeat yourself by over-thinking things, lacking a plan, wondering what others think of you to no good end, and “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
But then you notice something — some things that suggest you are beginning to learn. First, you realize that you can’t stop when climbing a rope or give in to your fear; there is no time for rest or you will slide back. And you must give the rope climb, and life, everything you have. Not just your arms, not just your arms and legs, but your will: the tenacity and drive that won’t allow you to accept defeat.
Just as in all of the future that waits for you, you cannot give up, but must improve or regress. The law of gravity applies to the rest of life, too.
But, once you master the rope, you will gain in confidence and know a little bit more about the world and about yourself. A knowledge that can be applied in very different and difficult situations.
Perhaps you will realize other things, as well.
First, that there will always be other “ropes.” Life has no end of them, no end of the challenges and demands with which it will present you.
And you might even recognize something else that neither the gym teacher nor the rope told you.
Getting to the top wasn’t the most important thing.
No, more important were the strain, the challenge, the pull and the crawl, the sweat, the exhilaration, and the feel of the rope in your hands and against your legs. That is, the lived-in experience of the moment.
And, just as well, the realization comes that the rope was your friend all along.
Like life itself, it had lessons to give you.
The 2003 photo above of a 50-foot rope climb was taken by Photographer’s Mate First Class William R. Goodwin and is courtesy of the U.S. Navy.