Mountain Tops and Valleys
I haven’t written a blog post for quite a long time. I have been moved to start blogging again today after the, very, physical experience of walking up ‘mountains’ (well at least quite steep hills) and then descending into a valley with a small river running through it. Judi and I are taking a short break in the North Pennines, courtesy of two very good friends who really talked us into looking after ourselves in this way. We cannot thank them enough. Waking up to an inspiring view, walking in the hills and vales and finding time to just unwind is something that we haven’t done for many years. The whole experience has been wonderful and it’s got me thinking about mountain tops and valleys.
I really can’t remember how many times I have heard sermons, listened to people explaining good times and bad times and read books about the mountain top and the valley (so why add to the volume of messages on this subject you might ask.) Well … as I was walking this morning (up hill, down dale) I started thinking about what I was experiencing. The view from the top of the hill was stunning (God even arranged for a really intense burst of sunshine illuminating the hillside in front of us when we got there). As we walked down towards the valley floor I started reflecting on what the valley actually meant.
The valley floor is, literally, the lowest point that you can walk to. It is the place where you have to look up at the view. It is the place where you have to climb up from if you want to ‘get back on top’ again. Our walk along the valley floor was a bit damp and muddy. The river that flowed alongside us was noisy. Not very deep but holding the hint of menace. We had seen it much fuller the previous evening, after a day of rain. All the streams that flowed down the hillsides around us emptied into the river – pumping up the volume of water flowing under the footbridges and across the ford surprisingly quickly. Not an unpleasant walk today, but certainly not as nice or inspiring as the view from the top of the hill.
While I was walking beside the river I realised that we were walking along one of the destination points we had planned on our walk. The valley floor was a destination. The top of the hill was a destination. In our mountain top and valley metaphor we tend to focus on our experiences when we get there. The ‘on top of the world’ feeling when we reach a summit. The disappointment and despair when we realise we have reached ‘rock bottom’ again. I have certainly heard and read commentaries on the climb to the top and the descent to the bottom, but not too often. It’s usually about being on top or being defeated.
On the walk up the hillsides today I was conscious of my heart beating, my labouring breath, the ache in my legs. The physicality of succeeding in my upward quest. The satisfaction of pushing myself out of my comfort zone. The health benefits of challenging my body in this way. The view from the top (the reward at the end of the struggle.) Enjoying Judi’s company as we climbed the hill together. Walking along the crest of the hill made me feel good – and the view continued to stretch out ahead of me and alongside me.
After a relatively short time the road tipped down, gradually at first and then quite steeply. On the steepest part of the descent I could feel the tugging on the back of my calves as my body instinctively applied the brakes. It was harder, physically, than walking up the hill had been. I wasn’t worried. I had to concentrate for a short while on not tipping over but I knew what to to do. Then the gradient reduced, the legs relaxed, the road flattened out and I relaxed into the gentle stroll to the valley floor.
There is a sense of relief in the walk from the top to the bottom. A feeling of unwinding. A release from the ‘punishment’ of the climb. At about the halfway point of my descent it dawned on me that in the ‘mountain tops and valley’ metaphor I had reached a point of revelation. I was aware of an insight into the ‘journey through life’ process. As human beings we often focus on the tough things that improve us – no pain no gain kind of thing. The determined climb up the hill. We also know how to describe our feelings of pain, loss, upset etc. when we have hit bottom. At this point we start looking for the ‘thing’ (or person) that will lift us up, brush us off and help us to start climbing again. So we can get ‘back on top.’ We rarely spend much time thinking about what happened to us on the journey from the top to the bottom.
As I walked down the hill today I realised that the downward path is an easy path to take. It is a relief from the hard work of climbing. It is a reward for having endured getting to the top. If we are honest with ourselves we look forward to the downhill stretch of a challenging walk. The point I want to make today is about that tendency. I love the illustration about ‘boiling the frog.’ If you drop a frog into boiling water it will immediately jump out and save it’s life. If you put a frog in cold or tepid water, then slowly heat it up, the frog will stay in the water – all the way to boiling point, when the frog, lulled into a false sense of comfort and security, will die. The walk down the hillside is very similar. Especially if the walk down the hill is a shallow gradient and an easy walk.
We certainly need to celebrate the mountain top times. We all know that we will spend times on the valley floor. We can feel good when we pick ourselves up from the bottom and start climbing again. Most important of all we need to recognise the danger of the easy walk down. The failure to guard against all that we struggled with on the way up. The challenges we overcame. The weaknesses we mastered. The lessons that we learned about ourselves and others. The mistakes we made that we don’t want to make again.
We need to understand that mountain tops and valley floors are destinations. Travelling from one to another is a journey. We need to be constantly conscious of the scenery unfolding around us as we travel in both directions.