In which I learn about work and life by walking up a mountain

I recently took some time out to go hiking up a mountain. The climb was steep. Near the midpoint of the mountain, the path became rocky, and at some points seemed nearly vertical.

Blazes leading vertically up a rock

Rocky path

I scrambled for miles up the path. This was difficult for me, partly due to nerve damage and muscle atrophy after a dislocated knee and broken leg that makes it difficult to “feel” where my foot is in space. I’ve always disliked the idea of being thought of as disabled and gone out of my way to avoid it, even going so far as to run (okay, jog and walk) through two marathons, even though I routinely fall on runs more than a few miles.  So I managed to make it to the summit. There I saw a rocky spire.

A rocky spire extending to the sky

Dragon’s tooth

I struggled to climb up, but couldn’t find a way. My floppy ankle, weak leg, and my newly discovered fear of heights proved to be too much.  I peered down into the valley from near the base of the formation, and then, resigned, came back down.

View into a valley from a rock

Climbing fail

I was preparing to walk back down the mountain path, when, as if from nowhere, a man appeared near the top of the rock formation.

Man sitting on top of a rock formation

Guru on top of the rock

He was sipping casually on coffee, or ambrosia, or some other wisdom enhancing beverage. Perhaps there was hope, then. Perhaps this wise fellow on top of the rock could offer some advice. After a substantial silence, I shouted out, ashamedly explaining but also probing and hoping to know the secret: “I’m not going to climb all the way up today – I’ve never climbed before and I want to practice somewhere safer first.”

And the answer came down from the mountain: “Good idea. This is one of those places where if you make a mistake, you won’t get another chance!”

I was briefly disappointed. What kind of spiritual guide on a mountain top lets you give up on something that other people do routinely? Had I made the journey up the mountain for nothing?

Public art found near downtown Blacksburg

Public art found near downtown Blacksburg

I had learned something important. Sometimes we need to recognize and acknowledge our limitations; not doing so can be dangerous. This was such a spiritual moment for me, not only because of the clichéd mountain pilgrimage, but because it parallels another challenge in my life right now.

Shortly after moving here, I sought professional help in developing better and more appropriate social skills. As a result of this, and through a serious of coincidences, I’ve learned something surprising about myself.  There are profound eccentricities in the ways that I respond to sensory stimuli, in the ways that I process information, and in my ability to understand and respond to subtle signals from other people.

I have conflicted feelings about this knowledge. I feel flawed, but also special. I’m glad to have this new information, but confused that I didn’t learn it until well into adulthood. I’m disappointed to feel that I might not ever understand the world the way that most people understand it, but also relieved to have a new framework in which to understand myself.  It explains those successes that I thought were luck, and many of my mistakes.  I’ve been feeling a certain sadness from revisiting some bad choices that I’ve made in my personal and professional spheres, but I also feel a new compassion for myself and a new forgiveness.

I am optimistic now. By chance, I found someone who has helped people who are more obviously affected than I am, who will teach me new skills, and who can help me to manage my disability and my ability. I have a life that I enjoy, in a great town, at a wonderful job with plenty of projects to work on and people who want to see me succeed.  So my only struggle, right now, is to accept that I have a problem that I need help with in order to be successful at work, to find out who at work is both willing and able to help, and to find a way to ask for that help without seeming unprofessional, incompetent, or problematic.

I think I can do this.

Update 2015-06: I may not be so different after all. And I’ve failed to “do this” so far. It’s okay. I’ll try again.

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3 thoughts on “In which I learn about work and life by walking up a mountain

  1. This is fantastic, Keith. Really, truly great. Sometimes it takes a long time to give our challenges a name, and it can definitely be disheartening to realize that, if we’d had that name sooner, we could have done things differently. It took me until I was 30 to recognize that the anger and sadness I felt was depression rather than me just being broken, and even longer for that knowledge to morph from different-bad to different-fine. But with the help that you’re getting, you’ll be able to define your world in a way that works for you, and I don’t doubt for a moment that you’ll succeed in all that you set out to do.

  2. Keith, this is really beautiful. I remember our days in Bowling Green. We had some interesting moments. But through the years, I have really come to love the way you see the world and the way you have an ability to love unconditionally. You have a poet’s heart, and a poet’s heart sometimes doesn’t fit in with “the norm,” and thank God for that. You may see this as a problem or disability, but I see it as a gift in many ways. The way you process life and relationships is something I find very endearing, and I just adore you. I’ve never felt like I really fit in and social anxiety has always been an issue for me, even though I may have hid it well at times. But what God has shown me through this battle is that I wasn’t made for this world anyway, and that this is His way of showing me different things that other people may not see. I don’t want to be like everybody else. It may be a climb to get over these things, but the view is always more beautiful to those who had to struggle to get to the top.

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