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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

False Summits

Believe it or not I used to be an athlete. No…seriously, stop laughing, I was.

I was strong, I was fast and I was even a little agile. But I wasn’t any of those things naturally. What made me an athlete was that I’ve always been ridiculously competitive. I can’t stand when someone THINKS I can’t do something, and if they actually have the nerve to say it…

So I worked harder than most – not harder than all, but harder than most. I strategized and studied. But mostly I just kept fighting until my opponents or detractors gave up

And it wasn’t always enough. Sometimes the other team was too big; sometimes my opponents were too fast. For whatever reason, I just didn’t always have what it took to come out ahead no matter how hard I fought.

A few years ago, as a youth minister in Dallas, I began preparing for TREK when we would attempt to climb Mt. Elbert – the tallest mountain in Colorado. I wasn’t that worried. You see in my mind I am still strong, fast and agile…in my mind. I’m convinced that there is still an athlete in there somewhere – actually it looks like there might be two or three.

So I began working out and jogging. I got in pretty good shape. As we began our trip up the mountain I felt really good. The long hike up to high camp was surprisingly easy and as we got ready for our summit attempt I felt very confident. Unfortunately in my preparation I did not have access to any mountains or high altitude gyms in Dallas. As we moved up to the higher elevations I found myself getting pretty light headed and a few times I even found myself sitting down when just a moment before I’d been walking.

It was very frustrating. I’d prepared! I was ready! And now, uber-competitive Bret looked like a pansy in front of teenagers (who, as you may know are SOOO compassionate and understanding!). What made the whole thing more difficult was the mental fatigue. If you’ve ever climbed a mountain you know there are “false summits” – places that to the climber look like the peak of the mountain until you get there and realize that there’s more mountain on the other side. Elbert had plenty of those little presents for us.

Each time I gathered my strength and pushed on to the summit, only to discover it wasn’t even close to the top, it took more and more out of me. Each new push became more and more difficult to conjure up. By the time we got to where we could finally see the real summit I almost didn’t care any more. Honestly I didn’t care any more – the only reason I creeped up that final stretch was because my competitive side would not stand for the verbal abuse I would have to endure if I didn’t finish.

False summits have almost done me in at several points in my life. They can be more difficult than strong, fast and agile opponents – even more difficult than the lack of oxygen at high altitudes. False summits drain our emotional and psychological reserve, which in turn drains our physical energy as well.

I realize that at some point we need to reach a summit – everyone has different limits, but no one has an inexhaustible supply of energy. As difficult as it can get, we must remember that the summit is there, even if it seems out of reach. The temptation to just lie down and quit can be strong, but we never know if the next ridge will be the final one. What a shame it would be to give up when our goal was within reach. But even that hope can wear thin eventually.

I watched the new Batman movie with Chappotin yesterday. (I’d heard it was pretty good – and I was not disappointed.) One of the lines that stuck out to me was Alfred telling Bruce Wayne that everyone has limits, even Batman. Discovering our limits can be painful…and so can discovering that we can endure more than we imagined.

There are times when we have no choice but to push and push ourselves beyond what we would've thought we could endure. We have to because...well, because we have to. On top of that mountain it was pretty simple. Beyond motivation, preparation or inspiration I had to get up and put one foot in front of the other until we were there. I certainly didn't do it alone - the value of community was brought home in a real sense that day - and without the preparation I had done or motivation to succeed, I likely would not have made it. Yet I was still faced with the choice to continue or quit. Regardless of anything else; difficult circumstances, un-cooperating body, etc, I still had the option to choose my response.

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