This is a guest post from B. T. Newberg of Humanistic Paganism.
Borneo: December 26, 2004.
“Batu Punggul?” the sisters exclaimed. “Why do you want to go there?”
I forked noodles into my mouth.
“Because it’s about as deep into the jungle as a tourist can go,” I shrugged. “The idea of being that far from civilization is… comforting.”
They looked quietly at me.
“You should climb Mount Kinabalu,” Liana said. “That would be more fun.”
“I don’t want to climb a mountain,” I said.
I didn’t want to have fun, either. I wanted to be sad. I wanted to be angry. I wanted the stink of decomposing leaves to surround me. I was in love with a woman who was happier than ever and I had no place in the picture.
Why climb a mountain? What makes us, tiny creatures that we are, aspire to such heights? Why not wallow in our smallness, mere motes of dust in a cruel and empty universe?
These are questions at the very root of the Heroic Life. The fourth maxim of Drew’s blueprint for a heroic life is “Do amazing things” – but why? Before you can embark on any adventure, you have to confront that simple question: Why? That is the question which I hope this story will, in some small way, begin to answer.
The meaning of mountains
Victor Frankl, the psychologist, wrote of the immense importance of meaning in human life. As a Jew in a Nazi concentration camp, he witnessed how his compatriots coped with suffering. Those who managed to find meaning in their situation survived, those who didn’t succumbed. Frankl kept his spirit alive by recalling the image of his wife. Hermann Haindl, the painter, sustained himself similarly through a Russian POW camp by taking solace in a small birch tree growing outside the barbed-wire fence.
As for me, lost in love’s despair, I was experiencing a crisis of meaning. Something was needed to restore meaning to my world.
Liana was an ex-lover. And I had gone back to Malaysia to visit her. But she had kept secrets, I soon discovered – secrets which meant there was no way we could ever be together again.
I didn’t want to climb the stupid mountain. What for? I wanted to rot away like a broken coconut on the jungle floor.
“Well, you can’t go to Batu Punggul,” her sister Linda said.
“Because no driver will take you.”
I asked why again and she explained that locals had been casting spells. The area was inhabited by the Murut tribe, and some didn’t want outsiders coming in. There was in that place a peculiar limestone formation sacred to them, which had of late been exploited by eco-tourists. To ward off the unwanteds they put a bit of poison in your cup and bade you drink.
“Your stomach swells up,” Linda described, “until you get all bloated, like your internal organs are exploding.”
I did, in fact, head toward Batu Punggul, and got as far as Tenom. But as the beads of sweat rolled down in the Borneo heat, and I ruminated over my lost love, something changed. I realized I could have been off in a different part of Sabah exploring caves or diving with turtles, but instead I was sitting in a coffee shop sweating disgust.
That moment, at precisely ten-thirty-five in the morning, I made a declaration. Amidst the tofu and coffee stench, I declared:
I will climb Mount Kinabalu.
Suddenly it was something I had to do.
Why? All of a sudden, the mountain called to me – why?
It was a symbolic gesture that assumed a world-stopping importance. Something inside me needed it. I had never climbed a mountain before, not even a small one.
There I was, a lovelorn twenty-something, feeling the cruelty of events bearing down and myself a speck of dust ready to blow away in the wind.
And then there was the mountain, looming over the whole island. It was a place of ghosts, local legend said. It was where you go after you die. Before it I felt insignificant. Somehow that relationship of power and powerlessness spoke to me like nothing before.
My energy returned. I busied about gathering the essentials I would need: a flashlight, a pair of hiking shoes, a wide-brimmed hat, and a rain poncho. For the first time in days I felt myself again.
The trail upward was a long, steady march. Droplets of sweat fell to earth like rain. I fell into a kind of trance. I only knew the next step, and the next step, and the next step.
By about three or four o’clock my heartbeat began to change. At first it was minimal, a gentle pounding that seemed faster than normal. Gradually it grew louder. Soon all I could hear was a single droning rhythm: thup, thup, thup… some two-hundred times per minute.
It was the altitude. I had never been this high in my life. I slowed my pace, placing each foot but a few inches in front of the other. Yet my heartbeat rang in my ears like hammers on a gong.
When at last we made the peak, just as dawn cracked over the horizon, a sense of accomplishment burst upon my being. Cold and exhausted, but ecstatic with joy, I knew I had pushed myself beyond anything before. It was a personal feat.
Gone was the person who longed to blow away in the wind. Born was a man who could conquer a mountain.
On our descent, the mists parted and the sun came out. The light of dawn warmed the stony peak. I could see every inch of the mountain, everywhere on the island, and all the way out to the sea. The lush green hills spread out before me, and the sea was afire with scintillating light. Birds cruised the warm air currents. Life was everywhere.
Why climb a mountain?
Mountains outscale us. They tower, they loom, they put us in our place. In their shadow, we feel insignificant. There is a sense of majesty and awe.
When we climb mountains, we participate in that awe. It’s not that we become greater than the mountain, but that its greatness becomes part of us. Some part of its aura enters our life story, and imbues it with meaning. That power which loomed over us at the foot goes inside us at the peak. Before we climb a mountain, it is an alien force. Afterward, it is an ally.
On that trip to Borneo, my question was answered. Why climb a mountain? Or, to phrase it in terms of the heroic life: Why do amazing things?
One answer is to restore a sense of meaning. It shows you who you really are. What you can do. Even in the throes of despair – especially in the throes of despair – climbing a mountain reminds you of the significance of life. It reveals that in a vast universe, with events that don’t always go your way, there is power inside you.
And that power, though far outscaled by the mountain, is not insignificant.
But not everyone is a climber. Your mountain may not be a mountain at all; it may be traveling the world, writing a novel, or proving a theorem no one thought possible. It could be any number of amazing things. Whatever it is, it pushes you beyond your limits, beyond what you ever thought you could do. And it shows you the meaning of existence.
What is your mountain?
B. T. Newberg is the editor of Humanistic Paganism, a community blog for naturalistic spirituality. Travel lust has led him across the globe, living in England, Malaysia, and Japan. He currently resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and cat, where he runs an SEO content writing service.