Strength Beyond My Own

Dear Will:

I know it doesn’t seem possible, but I’m pretty sure my hair hurts. My earlobes throb and my toenails are cramping. Even my freckles are in pain. That’s what happens, you know, when you ignore the realities of middle age and decide—who knows why?—that you will climb Mt. Whitney. That’s right: Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states, 14,505 feet above sea level. It’s not exactly a walk in the park, as they say—at least, not any park I have ever been to before.

Think of it this way: Say you start your climb (as just about everyone does) at the Whitney Portal, a mere 8,300 feet up. From there, it’s 11 miles to the summit, uphill as it turns out (who knew?). What you’ll notice as you make the ascent is that somewhere around 10,000 feet the trees pretty much give up and go home. The oxygen loses quite a bit of interest as well. So after hiking six miles with a 35-pound pack and spending the night around 12,000 feet to acclimate yourself, you will finish the climb surrounded by nothing but boulders, a few hearty wildflowers (how is that possible?), and other morons who are trudging up the hill simply because, like you, they had a few free hours and somehow it seemed like a good idea.

If you’ve never hung around at that altitude, you can’t begin to appreciate the air you’re breathing right now.  During the final five miles of our climb, I was out of breath constantly. Now I’m the first to admit that in my present physical condition I can get winded navigating the produce section at Ralph’s, but even so, this hike was different. By the end, I was barely shuffling along, concentrating on every breath in the vain attempt to give my lungs the oxygen they craved.

In our little group of 11, seven of us (four teens and three adults) made it to the summit. I confess that my reaction was more relief than elation, however, because the climb was such an ordeal. Little did I know, however, that the ordeal was just beginning.

Upon arriving at the mountain-top, one member of our group started suffering from altitude sickness, which is a polite way to say that he threw up. Repeatedly. For the entire 5-mile descent to our base camp. The poor guy was unable to eat or drink anything without, shall we say, gastric emanations. With no fuel in his body, he had a very hard time getting down from the summit. He would take a few steps, feel weary and nauseated, and have to stop to gather himself.

Once down to 12,000 feet, he began to feel better, but our group still faced the daunting task of getting back to the portal—another six miles below. Because we were racing a thunder shower, we could not stop to eat and decided we would make our way on trail mix and PowerBars alone. The trouble was that, partway down the trail, another of my companions found it increasingly difficult to hike on—not because of the altitude this time, but rather due to complete exhaustion. Eventually his food ran out. His water ran out. His legs could barely move. And yet he remained several miles from the end of the trail.

Most of our group hiked on, making it down the mountain a couple of hours ahead of me and my pal. Totally spent, he bravely stumbled on, zombie-like, willing his body down the trail only because he had no alternative. We radioed ahead to the rest of our fellows to let them know of his plight and to update them on our slow but gradual progress. Then the miracle occurred.

At some point, still far from our ultimate destination, one of the boys who had already completed that day’s 16-mile odyssey came running up the trail to meet us. He greeted us with a grin, and without much conversation relieved my friend of his 35 pounds of gear, gave us a cheerful wave, and went bounding back down the mountain. It was a stunning display of fellowship, a selfless act of amazing proportions. I learned later that when one of our leaders asked for volunteers to climb back up the trail to render assistance, everyone else was too exhausted to make the attempt. Only this 16-year-old boy was willing to go.

His act of compassion brought to mind several images: of the Good Samaritan proffering roadside aid, of Peter and John lifting and healing the lame man at the temple gates. I was also reminded of what Alma taught: That those who would be called followers of Christ must be “willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light” (Mosiah 18:8). Indeed.

Jesus said: “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee?  or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in?  or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:31-40)

I am also reminded of a favorite hymn:

Savior, may I learn to love thee,
Walk the path that thou hast shown,
Pause to help and lift another,
Finding strength beyond my own.
Savior, may I learn to love thee—
Lord, I would follow thee.

Let’s be clear: I did not enjoy climbing Mt. Whitney. It turned out to be one of the hardest days of my life. Even so, I know my pain will fade and my energy return, and when that happens, I will be left with a treasured memory: One of a smiling young man coming to the aid of one of his brethren. That image alone made the ordeal worth it—even in spite of my aching freckles.

PW

Could It Be You?

Dear Will:

My wife and I recently snuck off for a weekend getaway to Mendocino. Words fail to describe how beautiful it is there. God definitely put some of his best artists to work there during the Creation.

We spent a couple of hours one afternoon browsing through the shops in town, including one which, as it turned out, sold a lot of hemp products and books on the occult (it also had a “smoke shop” upstairs—we decided we weren’t the target audience). While I was reading up on why hemp fabric makes superior clothing, a loud horn shook the town (it has only 1,100 residents, by the way). When we asked the shopkeeper what was up, she calmly told us that it was the alarm for the Volunteer Fire Department.

Sure enough, as we left the shop and rounded the corner, we discovered that the fire station was open and the truck was gone. I suppose I knew that there were still volunteer fire departments functioning, but I have to admit that I imagined the scene as it might have played out in an old black and white movie, with some guy leaping up from the barber chair, his face only half shaven. In truth, I suppose that in this case the volunteers were accountants, construction workers, retirees—people like you and me who had agreed to drop everything when the blast sounded. I’d guess that some do it for fun, some for the thrill or the glamor, but all of them are motivated to one degree or another by a desire to look out for one another. In that respect, I guess a volunteer fire department is the ultimate in neighborliness.

When Jesus taught about loving our neighbors, he told of the Good Samaritan, illustrating as he did so that we should cultivate a genuine concern for others regardless of their race or religion or gender or political persuasion. He wanted us to recognize the brotherhood that binds us rather than the differences which seem so often to pull us apart.

Such thoughts are especially on my mind lately as I see our nation tilting, inexorably it seems, toward war. Throughout the ages nations have struggled to find ways to peacefully resolve their differences, the result being that hatred and misunderstanding lead us to kill and be killed. I can’t say that I feel like there is a lot I can do about all that on the global stage, unfortunately; but at a minimum I know I can try to be a little kinder, a little more thoughtful, a little more aware of those around me—probably starting right next door.

Here is, perhaps, a silly example of what I’m talking about. My next door neighbor owns a doughnut shop, and periodically he shows up on our doorstep with a dozen—just because. Although he speaks little English, he has found a way to speak a language that my children especially understand. As a result, I don’t ever think about our obvious cultural differences; instead I try to figure out something nice I could do for him to reciprocate.

In short, I’m feeling like the alarm has sounded and it’s time for me to get up out of the barber chair and figure out who needs my help. Could it be you?

PW

Saving You a Seat

Dear Will:

As I write this, I’m on Alaska Airlines flight 352, returning to Orange County after a fly-in-fly-out business trip to Portland (such trips are my favorites: maximum mileage but still home in time to tuck in the kids). I’m trying to remember how I survived without a laptop computer, and it’s a little fuzzy to me.

It occurs to me that, strange as it is, for all I know you could be seated beside me there in seat 12C. You could have been the person in front of me at the grocery store on Saturday (I’m easy to spot: I’m the guy with the cookie-faced two-year-old and seven gallons of milk). We’re neighbors, and yet we don’t know each other. We’re strangers, and yet we share a common bond. The notion prompts a couple of thoughts:

“We’re neighbors.” Jesus taught that anyone who needs our help is our neighbor (remember the Good Samaritan?). The lesson of that story is that, as children of God, we should reach out to one another in times of need, pausing to help regardless of the differences, either real or imagined, which may separate us. The tale reminds us of our common bond as children of God.

“We’re strangers.” This last Sunday we dedicated our sacrament service to that scripture in Ephesians that says something like (I’ll get this wrong, but you’ll get the idea): “Therefore are ye neither strangers nor foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints and of the household of God.” Paul’s point was that, no matter how our backgrounds or ancestry may differ, our faith in Christ joins us as if we were countrymen. It is a powerful metaphor, reminding us as it does that we are all in this together.

This note is intended simply to reiterate that, as your neighbor, I offer you my help. And as your fellowcitizen in Christ, I pledge to you my friendship.  Call me some time if you feel like it. And let me know next time you’re flying to or from Portland and I’ll save you a seat.

PW