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Climbing the Mountain of Life

You wouldn't be unusual if you think that life feels like something of an uphill battle, especially at the moment. Climbing a mountain is an often used metaphor for the journey of life, probably because it feels pretty accurate. Author of The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron uses it to refer to the journey of the artist as well.

The thing is, we often think that the journey of life (or as an artist) is a straight line heading up the mountain. We start at the bottom and, as life evolves, assume we get higher, closer to our goal at the top of the mountain. The thing is, that's not really how life pans out, is it? Sometimes we have to go down into a valley in order to climb once again. Those "dips" represent the troughs of life - the illness or accident, the redundancy or demotion, the period of unemployment or failing our exams. As artists we are rejected for comps, fail to sell or hit a creative block. Cameron also points out that a more realistic way of climbing a mountain is by climbing slowly; spiraling around the mountain's girth. Climbing this way instead of straight up the side means that it takes a bit longer to get to the top, and we often revisit the same scenery over and over again. That can be frustrating. But Cameron reminds us that we are seeing the scenery from a slightly different perspective each time, a fact that can help us to learn lessons that we keep banging our head against. Climbing up the escarpment gets us there much quicker, but doing that means we spend most of the time climbing, concentrating hard and staring at the rockface. Scenery is not something we can really enjoy until we get to the top.

In our Neoliberal society, we tend to assume that what we should aspire to is reaching the top of the mountain, and the sooner the better. We tend to regard anyone who doesn't get to the summit as a bit of a failure, not having what it actually takes to see the distance, or maybe they are just lazy and therefore don't deserve to see the panorama visible from the top of the mountain.

I don't really agree with that idea. So let me borrow the mountain climbing metaphor to add a different perspective to our journey of life and to that of the artist.

Firstly, as I've already said, going straight up the steep slope of the mountain doesn't really enable you to see anything much until you get to where you are going. Perhaps those who take it a bit slower and steadier get to experience a bit more of the good stuff on the way. Like the creek that courses down through the valleys and ravines, the wildlife that lives in the foothills, or the forest bathing they can experience on the less steep inclines. Plus, they arguably have a better chance of getting where they want to go in one piece. It is easy to fall while climbing the cliff face, especially if we have failed to plan our ascent to the extent we need to. The high risk, high reward route is not always the best. Sometimes it really is the slow and steady who win the race.

Regardless of which way you go, it is easy to slip on the way up the mountain through no fault of our own. Sometimes the ropes that support us are worn, or the ground underfoot is loose. Sometimes we encounter disaster, where the path itself disappears under a mudslide or avalanche. We might lose our way or encounter bad weather. None of these things is a reflection of our worth or ability to climb. It is the capacity to stand up again and push forward, perhaps seek an alternate route or try on another day that makes the difference. Doing this will inevitably make us stronger, and offer more beneficial help to others who may want to follow in our footsteps.

Does it really matter how long it takes to get there or even how many attempts it takes? Sometimes we just need to sit on the mountain, reflect and rest until we can climb again. And, not everyone is physically capable of climbing a sheer rock face. That doesn't make them any less than the people who can. It just means they will approach things a different way. And maybe the view is just as good from half way up the hill as it is from the top. Possibly different, but just as good.

Unless you are a Chinese monk who lives on the tip of an impossible peak to be closer to god or whatever, the odds are that even if you reach the top, you won't be able to stay there indefinitely. At some point, you will need to come down, either because you can't survive the elements long term or you are standing in the way of someone else whose turn it is to see the view. That is most definitely true in life as well as artistic careers. It is difficult to stay at the top for long periods. Sometimes the only way it is possible is to push other people off into the void below. Maybe you can have a few successful goes at reaching the summit, but you can be assured that there will always someone coming behind you. Maybe there is more to be said for those that can safely navigate their way back down the mountain and ensure their longevity than those who cause harm to themselves or others in order to win the race to the top and stay there.

Then there is the issue of which mountain you should climb. What if you race to the top of the tallest mountain only to find you are stranded somewhere you don't really want to be? What if, once you get to the top, all you can see is an endless range of more mountains to climb? What if, for a change, you were meant to travel the plains or the woods, sail on the river or sea? Maybe it is more important that our general direction of travel is forwards, not upwards. I wish you well in your travels, wherever they take you, metaphoric or otherwise. May you be sure-footed, enjoy the scenery and don't forget to rest along the way.

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