I climb mountains. Eugene L. Roberts did too, and encouraged others to do so, organizing some of the first Timpanogas climbs. In my grandma’s words, he did it because “Mountains are there to be climbed.” This recalls the famous answer George Mallory gave when asked why he wanted to climb Everest: “Because it is there.” Mountains are there and they are meant to be climbed. That is why I climb mountains. Of course, the next question is “Why are they meant to be climbed?” Why is it good to climb mountains? Because of the view? Because of the challenge? For the exercise? For the experience of nature? Because mountains are like temples, sacred and revelatory? Take your pick; none of these answers satisfies me. Yes the view can be incredible, yes the challenge and exercise and experience of nature is enlivening. Yes there is absolutely something about the high places of the earth that commands reverence, and brings us closer to God. But the experience itself is the only complete answer for this and a thousand other “whys” about doing good things. Experience is what we gain on our earthly mountain climb, replete with soul-stilling glory and pied beauty, as well as heart-wrenching suffering and monotony’s deadening trudge. And when a Job or Joseph asks God why, He does not answer. He merely affirms that He is God, we are His children, He is in control, and all these things shall give us experience—“Just keep climbing,” in effect. That we should ask “why” is human. But we must be careful not to value the abstracted, objectified, speakable explanation of reality more than reality itself—which we simply experience.
There is, I believe, value in being able to ponder, put into language, and discuss our experience—it allows us to connect with other people and identify patterns and meanings. But there is a certain point at which this system simply fails. Poetry, art, and music are all languages that greatly expand our ability to express human experience, but even these will never be entirely sufficient. And even if we could find a way to express through some form of language the totality of human experience, still the expression would be no substitute for the experience itself. And reading about climbing mountains will never substitute for climbing them. Those of us who spend a lot of time and energy reading, learning, discussing, classifying, and systematizing need to balance our focus by remembering to experience the indefinable, irreducible world, and to stand in awe. I am not suggesting that we should live unexamined lives. I have recently read Plato’s stunning Apology of Socrates, and as I read, Socrates renewed his status as a great hero of mine. But if he had done nothing more than examine life, his legacy would have been as a tickling cymbal. He was a man of action, and his examination of life was not a merely cerebral exercise. He acted out his philosophy to his death. He also asked difficult “whys” and came to few conclusions. But despite his self-acknowledged ignorance, when his life’s mountain was climbed, he was not afraid to walk into the valley of death—and he had a bright hope that there was another more glorious mountain on the other side of the valley. We should examine our lives, but we should examine courageously and not questioning fearfully; and we should stay planted in the life-giving soil of experience, of the real world. So to those who sometimes get bogged down with difficult “whys,” I would simply respond with a smile: “Go climb a mountain.”