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Climbs and descents

By Annie Waddoups

I’ve been thinking of this ever since I read it a few weeks ago:

You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.

~Rene Daumal, Mount Analogue

These words were written by a mountain climber so they were perhaps intended to be taken literally: why climb? Why submit your body to that exertion to reach the summit, only to have to turn around and descend? Good questions, especially if I were a mountain climber.

But even non-mountain-climber me finds a lot of truth to this, on several levels and topics that are still incubating in my mind. A smattering of things like faith and testimony and relationships and trials and triumphs and memory and striving and leadership.

And parenting & family life. As my husband’s cousin said recently “At least 30 minutes of blood, sweat, and tears go into every Rockwell moment of family life.” Likewise, the moments of seeing–really seeing the vista at the peaks–are slight compared to the moments of knowing and remembering what we saw and that we were there.

But this is what stops me in my tracks: The art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. This is what I’m after this year. It’s my current definition of faith and maturity and wisdom, rejoicing in the peaks but especially learning the art of knowing and remembering even in the valleys. On the way, pressing on, to the next peak. I feel nudged to learn this better.

I’d love to hear about what Daumal’s words mean to you. What have been your peaks and valleys and what are their lessons?

About Annie Waddoups


21 thoughts on “Climbs and descents”

  1. Thank you for this post. Daumal's words describe something that I've finally learned these past few years during struggles with depression. As others have mentioned on this blog, it is hard (and sometimes impossible) to feel the spirit or divine love when you're slogging through a dark emotional valley. When I'm tempted to feel unworthy or that prayer is futile, it helps to remember moments when I poured out my heart and felt an almost tangible sense of our Savior's arms around me.

  2. I love this post and the quote is so meaningful to me. When my husband was touch and go with advanced cancer I felt like I was breathing different air – not so much angst and grief (although I'm sure those were lurking.) The atmosphere was of a constant bath of love, like I'd gotten to glimpse how charged the world is with the love of God, how rich and beautiful this mortal experience is and riddled with God's peace. I was suffused with well-being. (If I didn't know better I'd wonder what I'd been smoking.) In some ways it was the most tranquil and transcendent stretch of time I've ever experienced. My husband survived and we're back to being "normal" people now, but I can still recall how that period felt and I try to think about the perspective I had there. Lofty, indeed.

  3. I have had a similar thought concerning my own spirituality. I feel that there is an assumption in the church that we *should* always be spiritually improving. It gives the feeling of always ascending, pursuing, progressing and rarely finding yourself in an acceptable descent. The valleys are equally as valuable as the peaks in life. With the assumption that the valleys are undesirable, we wonder about our failings when find ourselves decreasing in elevation. I have decided to reframe my perspective and see these things as the natural ebb and flow of the plan. Accepting a linear view of spirituality ignores insight and growth. I want to see beauty everywhere.

  4. Nani, thank you. I think it's interesting that the language of Daumal's quote refers to knowing and remembering, which is a different variety of faith than we usually discuss–more cognitive, I guess. As you point out, sometimes it's difficult to have the emotions of hope and faith but possible to throw out the tethers of memory and previous experience to hold us during descents.

    Linda, your comment made me think about how sometimes valleys in one area become peaks in another. What a blessing to be bathed in love and "riddled with God's peace" (loved those words!) at such a potentially anxious time. I can imagine that you do conduct yourself differently at "lower elevations" for having been there.

    Tami Jo! Thank you for articulating so well that element of spiritual ascent and descent and for your insight that the valleys are just as valuable as the peaks. I know I have definitely felt that pattern over the years with my testimony. The peaks and valleys provide meaning for each other.

  5. Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

    I climbed a mountain once, a mountain that I'd lived under for years. The view from the top was spectacular, but what was even better than the view was my own feeling of accomplishment. I did something that I didn't know if I could do. Honestly, without my supportive and encouraging roommate, I'd have turned around halfway up. Seeing that mountain every day after that made me feel like I could do anything!

    In the context of faith, I think it's helpful to have a symbol that can remind us of the metaphorical mountains we climb, something that reminds us of the effort we have made to live a particular way or to overcome a particular rough spot in our lives. For me, at this moment, it would be my wedding ring or my temple garments. (Although I usually only wear the ring when I leave home and not even always.)

  6. Annie – this is beautiful. "learning the art of knowing and remembering even in the valleys… I feel nudged to learn this better." Me too.

    Daumal's quote reminds me of a very simple poem I've kept in my Bible for the last fifteen years or so. Author unknown. Here is a snippet:

    From my mountain I can see the world from a higher perspective;
    It is closer to God's perspective.
    From here I can see what I must become in order to live in the Valley…

    Up here my heart is filled with the grandeur of the view…

    But I can't, like the monk, try to stay on the mountain;
    My family, my dreams, my future and my work are in the Valley.
    So how does one descend to the Valley
    but keep his heart on the Mountain top?

    I still wrestle with that last question. But if it weren't for the peaks, the views, the ascents into light and exposure and communion, the valleys would be almost intolerable. Remembering is crucial in this ebb and flow of a spiritual life. And opposition is the way, the only path for learning.

    Loved your thoughts and the other comments here.

  7. So I read this and feel it could be read different ways, and also that the opposite can be true. Mountains could represent the trials we face head-on that allow us to see (it takes hard work to climb a mountain!), or they could represent the high points of faith that we hold on to when we are in valleys of sorrow and difficulty. The perspective either way can be enlightening in my mind.

    Hard times have helped me see myself, God, and others differently. High points of faith are my anchors. One of the things I like about getting older is that I have more and more of those anchor moments that help me when times are tough.

    Thanks for this post, Annie.

  8. I've often thought this to myself and discussed it with friends my age…that having been alive for a longer time (in other words, having more life experience) makes coping with those deep valleys in life a little easier. It's true. Once you've reached a peak, climbed down into a valley, then risen to a peak a few times, the valleys never seem so low or the peaks so far away again. You learn from experience (rather than just hearing it) that nothing is more constant than change…and that some of that change is bound to be good.


  9. I applied the quote a bit differently because of recent experience with temple attendance. If we see the mountain peak as participating in temple work–getting to that celestial room, then it sheds some light on just what that experience should do for us.

    We can't constantly live in the temple; we have to go back to the lone and dreary world, but we take with us a remembrance of that higher place.

    For me, the temple enables me to make better decisions with eternal perspective. It doesn't take long, however, to lose that perspective and fall back into my normal idiocy. That's why, the last few times I've attended, I've been impressed that I need to learn better how to keep that perspective even "in the valleys".

    Great post, I'm going to share it with my one or two readers. 😉

  10. Thank you, Gdub, what an insightful application of the quote. I hadn't thought of it that way but the temple definitely enables us to better understand "the art of conducting ourselves in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up." In fact, it would be apt to apply it to Adam and Eve and their exile from the Garden, as well.

    Wow, I've been inspired reading your thoughts and interpretations of Daumal's words.

    I experienced a mundane application of it today as I was doing dishes and thought "what's the point?! they just all get dirty again!" which rang a bell and then I remembered Daumal. Some days climbing the mountain of dishes even represents a peak, I guess.

  11. And, Catherine, thank you for sharing that poem. It will be going in my scriptures, too, and was a perfect accompaniment to this entry. "My family, my dreams, my future and my work are in the Valley. So how does one descend to the Valley
    but keep his heart on the Mountain top." Ah, that's it.

  12. Loved this post & comments. I noticed that my life was full of ups & downs that made me a little ragged from their dizzying heights and dramatic falls, then on my mission I learned to navigate my life better, or I guess I just matured! And, like others have said, as time continues (20+ years later) I seem to handle the ascents & descents with more humility & patience.

    This quote is beautifully insightful about remembering what we've seen above when we're below. That might be a good definition of maturity.

    Thanks for sharing.

  13. Untitled Poem by Eunice Tietjens in "Everset: The West Ridge"

    The stone grows old.
    Eternity is not for stones.
    But I shall go down from this airy space, this swift white
    Peace, this stinging exultation;
    And time will close about me, and my soul stir to the
    Rhythm of the daily round.
    Yet, having known, life will not press so close.
    And always I shall feel time ravel thin about me.
    For once I stood
    In the white windy presence of eternity.

    There are, in mortality, few "summit' experiences—the rare and demanding spots in time when we are in the "white windy presence of eternity. My experience tells me the are given only at enormous cost and an eviscerating descent. . .a descent far, far, far below sea—or "see"—level.

    Then and only then do we, as Tietjens writes, "know." Tha knowing changes every aspect of reality in the knower. For those who are familiar with the temple ceremony, we know that those things most critical—the summative signs—are only given when our hearts are literally pressed right up against the veil of death.


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