“Welcome back, my friend. Do you know what you’re looking for now?” Miguel asks me as I step into his art gallery.
A week prior I stepped into his gallery for the first time. At 14,200 ft of altitude, his gallery was the highest elevation art gallery in the world. I read about his gallery in a Guinness World Records book in Middle School, not knowing that ten years later I would be at Plaza de Mulas, in his gallery, about to climb Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America (22,837 ft). When I first looked around, I told him I would buy something, but I wanted to climb the mountain first. I didn’t want a picture of the summit to look at if I didn’t make it. He laughed, sending me on my way up the mountain.
Now, I am back in the gallery, in the exact position I dreaded holding. There was no summit to my name still. The day before I had been at 21,860 ft, running on fumes on a summit attempt that came too soon too quickly. Weather forced the quick ascent, but nonetheless, I wanted to accomplish this. Since my decision to climb this mountain two years prior, I had told friends of my plans, accumulated gear, trained, and persevered through two Covid-19 delays and another knee surgery. I had to do this. I didn’t want to let others down. I didn’t want to let my mom down, who chose to join me on this expedition. I didn’t want to let myself down.
If I climbed this mountain, perhaps, I could maintain the illusion that I was living life to the fullest and that at the end of my days, this would be a determining factor of me living life well.
But I did not. My legs collapsed at 21,860 feet. I was able to look at the summit, but not touch it. I was less than 1,000 feet away, but I would only grow farther, not closer.
Yet, at 21,860 feet I lay there on the snow covered ridge, staring at the summit, and understanding that by being on the mountain, I was a part of the divine. It is no wonder native tribes see the divine in nature.
Nature unleashes winds and snow and weight, but nature also offers mercy in the rain, grace in sunrises, and beauty at every turn. Nature is firm and unyielding in its strength, but the waters and plants will work with the animals to coexist.
At 21,860 feet, the mountain looked at me as if to say “you are not here to conquer, but to participate.”
It is a shallow notion to pride achievement, conquest, and success, snubbing the idea of participating. This is not to say the idea of giving one’s best should be disregarded, but one’s best effort does not always equal the best outcome. Not every kid that tries his best on the basketball court will be in the NBA. Not every kid that studies their hardest will be first in their class. An individual’s best will even change. We are ever evolving. Therefore, to expect a rigid form of “best” to be met every day is to invoke the idol of perfection, which invites us into a place of viewing ourselves as disappointments.
It seems to me that it is the release of summiting that allows us to truly enjoy participating in climbing. It is not until Peter acknowledges that he cannot wash himself in John 13, that Jesus can wash his feet, and truly let him participate in the Kingdom of God. It is the release of 22,837 feet that will allow me to be grateful for 21,860.
As I look around Miguel’s gallery, my eyes settle on a painting. It is the summit of Aconcagua, painted in purples and blues, with clouds circling around it, creating a storm. I look up at the mountain to see similar winds having closed behind me as I left—- the winds that opened so that I might not conquer , but participate. The winds that cared not for what I wanted, but gave me more than I deserved. I think to my time in the winds and I remember the beauty of the sunrise over the clouds. I remember bringing a smile to a couple friends‘ faces as their bodies groaned on the way up. I remembered my friend Jonas, waiting on me as my weak body stumbled down the mountain and helping me up as I fell. Even in the walls of winds, there was love and there was God. Only through participating was I able to lay my ambitions and pride down enough to see both.
“I’ll take it.” I say.