In The Parable of the Sadhu, a real-life story by former Wall Street
investment banker Bowie McCoy, we learn what it means to focus on “the point of the trip.” McCoy and a friend take advantage of a six-month sabbatical offered by his company and they travel to Nepal and the Himalayas, there to rediscover and energize themselves, and maybe to sharpen the sense of meaning in their lives. Climbing the treacherous peak requires strength, persistence and a constant eye on the weather, which provides for only brief opportunities to actually reach the summit.
While on their ascent, a New Zealand climber shows up at their camp with the nearly frozen body of a Sadhu, a religious mystic, and leaves the man with the Americans to rejoin his own party. Short on time and weather opportunity themselves, McCoy and his companion decide that the suffering mystic should be taken down the mountain to a Japanese camp, where perhaps someone there might better minister to the Sadhu’s needs.
McCoy’s companion volunteers to help the Sadhu and does not meet up with McCoy again until the following day. Distraught, he relates the seeming indifference of the Japanese climbers to the plight of the Sadhu. They, too, are focused on the brief window of opportunity which the weather provides to climbers. The companion relates how he has left the slightly-revived Sadhu at the Japanese camp, uncertain as to their intentions toward this inconvenient intruder.
McCoy and his companion press on successfully to the summit and down again, but never discover the fate of the Sadhu who had come so briefly and awkwardly into their lives. And it is only then that McCoy, a church elder himself, comes to realize the missed opportunity of his search for renewal. So focused on the climb and the summit, he misses the noblest and most important chance of all, that of saving the life of another human being. McCoy has spent his days since that trip in “public confession” and teaching ethics to those who will stop long enough to listen.
I continue to reflect upon the activities and the lessons of the recent Certificate Program for cooperatives in Nicaragua, though several weeks have now elapsed since the event. While I participated as one of the “teachers,” my greatest take-aways were from the perspective of being one of the “students.” The faculty and the participants assembled by organizer Rene Mendoza were so good that absorption and reflection were inevitably created in every participant, even if he/she did not actively seek such personal impacts.
One of the more dramatic lessons took place mid-week, at a point when the group likely needed a break from the seminar format and would be most open to learning of a different sort. Our assignment was simply this: report to the learning center at 6:00 A.M. to commence the hike to the top of Peñas Blancas. Guides would lead the way for us, and we were all encouraged to make the hike all the way to the top. We were assured that the climb would be worth the effort, that the view was spectacular and the richness of the forest would reward even the most casual observers.
Surveying the group before departure, I began to wonder whether such admonitions were entirely appropriate for some of the participants. We ranged in age from approximately 18 years of age to perhaps mid-70’s. Some women were attired in skirts. Others wore open-toed shoes. Beyond that, while I knew that I would be hiking among people who made their livings through hard physical work and who regularly traversed difficult terrains, I also knew that hiking up the side of a mountain required an entirely different set of physical strengths. I wondered whether the climb was really well-advised for every member.
We set off on the journey full of enthusiasm, high spirits and anticipation. Our first half-hour presented only a gentle slope as we followed a rough road to the base of the cliff. We stopped to admire and climb a truly “big rock”
in the backyard of one of the cooperative leaders before continuing on; energy conservation had not yet become a consideration. Conversations flowed easily among us. One participant even approached me to try out some of her English as we walked.
Some forty-five minutes into our adventure, we reached the base of the cliff and the origin of the narrow hiking trail upwards. The tightness of the path dictated a single-file line, though it didn’t seem to limit the ongoing give-and-take of the hikers. If anything, the laughter and the noise we created seemed to grow in their intensity as we ascended. Now-steep elevations in the trail began to test our resilience and leg strength. The trail became more slippery, a combined outcome from the previous night’s rain and the footfalls of some fifty hikers. Periodic stops along the way signaled the growing fatigue of some, but in every case the cluster of people around them patiently waited for recovery while offering swigs of water from bottles carried by others.
And at each moment, words of encouragement and support were poured out upon each other. The most savvy and stable of the forest hikers, without request or prompt, assumed personal responsibility for those in greatest need. Even for me: more than once, as the muddy trail slipped out from under me, Edmundo or Lester were there at my side to offer a hand. (I suppose they needed to watch out for the gringo.) But I remember thinking to myself how good and supportive that felt, even in the face of my prideful determination to navigate independently. The spirit was the same throughout: the group had become determined to ascend to the top as a group, with no one left behind.
The long line of marchers eventually separated a bit into faster and slower groups, though continually within earshot of one another. I had chosen to move ahead with the faster bunch, eager to reach the pinnacle and take in the views. My own energy remained good and I was particularly grateful to be wearing my trail boots on this occasion, convinced that they were giving me an advantage over the terrain that most of the others did not have. At the precise moment of that reflection, I noted the shoes of others nearby and was amazed to see one tiny lady of our group sporting flip-flops for the climb. I felt sheepish about my footwear despite- or maybe because of- their utility.
Four hours into the adventure, the first cluster reached the small clearing at the summit. We became rather subdued in that moment, a reverential peace and quiet descending upon us in the face of a panorama that literally took our collective breaths away. There is something about mountaintops that perhaps suggests closeness to heaven; we all might have been feeling that.
And then the others arrived at the peak, in twos and threes from the forest trail, tired from the journey but equally transfixed at the valley sights far below. But of equal importance was the greeting that each successive cluster received as they joined the rest of us. Cheers and congratulations and laughter resounded from that peak, joy that we had all achieved the summit, that even the oldest and most unconditioned and reticent of us had persevered together. There was water and snack crackers for everyone, the largesse of several members who simply chose to share.
Watching the entire collection of unlikely teammates, I eventually began to discern the point of the trip, the lesson of the day. This demanding hike, though not of the intensity or scope of Bowie McCoy’s, offered a renewal. It had not been about physical condition or our universal longings for achievement or even recognition of our need for a collective stewardship of a beautiful planet. The exercise revealed something far more crucial for those inclined to see something deeper in the sweat and the mud. The lesson was revealed in the gathering of all hikers at that clearing on the top, the fact that a very disparate and unlikely consortium of human beings collaborated, persevered, helped one another and triumphed, that we each had been presented with an opportunity to serve another. Every participant brought an energy and a contribution to the Peñas Blancas effort, even an outsider who did not even speak the same language as the rest.
Our wealth is in each other. Our achievements and treasures, if won in the solitude of self, hold no import without context. And there is no context in our lives but for the lives of others. That was our lesson of renewal.
The point of the trip. It’s an easy thing to miss, even when it’s staring us in the face. It’s an ancient truth, but one easily forgotten in our competitive, self-driven lives. The lesson was well worth the climb….