The parable of the mountain climber

man mountain climber outdoors snow
Once upon a time, there was a mountain that no one had ever climbed.

Although generations of hill dwellers had come and gone, no one had ever reached the mountaintop without losing their life along the way.

During a particularly prosperous time, however, there came a Mountain Climber whose skill was known far and wide. Everyone had heard tales of his daring summits and iron will.

The Climber spent two weeks at the mountain’s base preparing his supplies and receiving blessings from the elders and mystics who knew these peaks and valleys better than anyone.

And so, with a confident smile, The Climber bid the villagers farewell and began his most challenging ascent yet.

For weeks the villagers waited. They hoped The Climber would return, but they were all prepared to never see him again.

They knew the mountain, and the mountain was unforgiving.

One afternoon, as the shepherd was tending his flock, he sighted a familiar silhouette coming across the meadow. The flowers seemed to bow in reverence as the Mountain Climber, now distinctly ragged around the edges, made his triumphant return to the village.

Everyone trusted The Climber; he had a reputation for great integrity. But all doubts flew away as he opened his hand and showed them one of the vivid pearlescent crystals that only appeared near the mountain’s peak.

Even if the climber didn’t quite reach the top, he did something no one else had ever accomplished.

Celebrations of his bravery ate up most of the next week (and almost all the wine in the area). This was the historic day that human will had conquered the unconquerable.

But The Climber grew restless, as all great adventurers do. He began to hear tales of another mountain, even taller and less forgiving than the one he’d just defeated.

The villagers told him not to go. This mountain lay on the other side of a small ocean. Only the most skilled mariners knew how to navigate these treacherous waves.

“What’s a bit of water to the greatest climber in the world?” the Mountain Climber asked, wearing the same confident smile he had shown the mountain. He threw his climbing gear into a canoe and set off into the waves.

As it turned out, a bit of water was a lot more than the Mountain Climber knew how to handle. He grew sick from the movement, red from the sun, and completely lost within hours of his departure.

Then a storm blew in from the east, tipped his canoe, and sent The Climber to his watery grave.

Throughout human history, we’ve come up with a lot of miraculous tools and ideas to overcome the obstacles we’re presented.

Medicine, ships, religion, philosophy, democracy, capitalism, the list goes on and on. We find a mountain, try and fail a few times to climb it, then finally crack the code. Often, a particularly skilled thinker (climber) will come along and find the final missing piece to this puzzle.

Unfortunately, the skills and ideas that get us over one obstacle usually take us to the next one before we’ve had time to enjoy our victory. Sometimes yesterday’s tools are irrelevant to today’s problems. Sometimes they’re the very cause of our current struggles.

Winston Churchill was an exceptional leader during WWII. Many people believe it was his unflinching grit in the face of unimaginable horror that got Britain through that horrible struggle.

But then, as anyone who watched The Crown knows, he was a horrible peacetime leader. Churchill’s demeanor was perfect for total war, and unfit for a transition into peace.

Similarly, the Mountain Climber had all the necessary skills for climbing mountains, but those skills were useless for a nautical voyage.

It would have been better for the mountain climber to take a few months and study under experienced seamen before crossing the ocean. He knew how to survive a mountain, but the sea requires different skills and awareness.

We live in a strange time in history. Humanity has climbed many mountains, but now we look across uncharted seas unsure how to proceed.

Global poverty and child mortality are down. The world is more connected and efficient than ever thanks to revolutionary technology. We haven’t had a truly global conflict in almost a century.

But we’re met with new obstacles. Global refugee crises, environmental degradation, and unprecedented economic challenges have many people wondering how we can keep moving towards harmonious outcomes.

I don’t have all the answers to these questions. No one person, technology, or philosophy can solve the problems we now face. 

The best thing we can do is to avoid the Mountain Climber’s mistakes. Rather than putting irrational confidence in the tools that got us here, we need to slow down, survey the obstacles, and figure out the best ways to proceed.

We can all be optimistic, though, because we have a lot of great tools at our disposal. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to best use the tools we have and creating whatever new tools we need to solve today’s problems.

I know we can do it.