Digging Out

 

There are two tragedies in life, to paraphrase the famous line from George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. One is to fail to gain your heart’s desire. The other…is to gain it.

Mountaineer Cory Richards, pictured above in this famous selfie, almost experienced both on the same day.

In a poignant testimonial in National Geographic last year, Richards speaks of the thrill of being invited by two legendary climbers, Simone Moro and Denis Urubko, to climb the daunting Himalayan peak of Gasherbrum II. The honour of being asked to partner with them in a winter attempt was huge, but Richards also hoped that this great accomplishment, once gained, would put his whole life together.

“Climbing…saved me,” he writes, out of a rough adolescence. “I dropped out of high school, got into alcohol and drugs, and lived on the street for a while.” But climbing gave him a challenging purpose. He cleaned up, shaped up, and climbed up—higher than most ever do.

To ascend Gasherbrum II with these two iconic mountaineers would, he hoped, be the  final piece to his personal puzzle. “I felt that if I could just make it to that summit, then I would be permanently ‘fixed.’” (How many of us have a similar great goal we honestly believe will complete and crown our lives?)

The day came for the final, mad push to the peak, and they made it. But on the descent, an avalanche swept down upon them. Amazingly, all three survived. The famous photo was taken about an hour after Richards managed to dig himself out.

So he gained his heart’s desire on his way up. And he almost lost it on the way down.

Great story, isn’t it? But Richards has more to say.

“Far from fixing me, my experience on Gasherbrum II broke me.” He began to suffer terrible panic attacks, waves of rage, terrible sweats. And he responded the way he knew best, according to the patterns of his adolescence: badly.

“I drank heavily and cheated on my wife…. I ended up buried and choking to death all over again. I got divorced, lost my main professional sponsor, made an ass of myself, hurt people I care about.”

A therapist diagnosed him with PTSD, that terrible psychic avalanche in which so many people have been buried alive. But Richards has dug himself out. “I’ve quit drinking and started climbing again…. I’ve come to recognize that the notion that summiting a mountain could fix me was as much an illusion as the idea that that photo of me post-avalanche somehow portrayed a hero.”

At terrible cost, Richards has come to learn one of the greatest lessons anyone can learn. Gaining one’s heart’s desire does not gain everything the heart actually needs. It doesn’t even gain what the heart needs most.

“Our hearts are restless,” Augustine prayed, “until they find their rest in Thee.” Here’s hoping Cory Richards, a remarkably honest and clear-sighted man, finds the ultimate rest he needs.

Here’s hoping we do, too.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).