Two years ago I was climbing Dog Mountain in the Columbia Gorge. A 3000 foot peak, if you can climb it in three hours, you are said to be fit enough to climb Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Fifteen years ago my family was climbing it every weekend, as we tested the potential to make that journey.
That earlier trip had been canceled, and now years later I was testing my fitness: how far was I from that earlier mark? I felt fit, but you never know. I parked in a river-side lot and then climbed and climbed, through a series of switchbacks, up rock-strewn dirt paths, and as I got higher, I saw fewer people. Most turned back. If you aren’t ready, it is a brutal climb, and I’d not done any climbing in a decade. My entire body was burning, every carefully measured breath a struggle as I neared the peak. The last hour, I walked alone, the Columbia river becoming smaller and smaller beneath me, the voices in my head telling me to quit, to turn back, that I had already pushed beyond the line I’d agreed to when I began. But that voice was lying: I’d agreed to discover if I could climb to the top in three hours, and if I was over that line, it was only by minutes. I needed to know HOW FAR short of that mark I was.
And…something odd happened. As I got closer to the top, I started meeting more people. Almost by magic, the loneliness decreased, and the smiling faces of climbers coming BACK DOWN the mountain greeted me at every turn. “Almost there!” they said. “You’re doing great!” they said.
And…when I finally got to the top, there was a flattish place of grass and smooth rocks, where I sat, and ate the lunch I’d brought up with me. There were a dozen of us there, and we shared a quiet unity. We are the ones who made it. Who didn’t turn back. We are tired and aching…but we did it.
We’re all alone in this…together.
There is a scene in “Good Will Hunting” (1997) , one of many that I love. Two scenes, really. One is when Matt Damon’s (a janitor/math prodigy at M.I.T.) psychiatrist Robin Williams tells Stellan Skarsgård, Damon’s M.I.T. math mentor, that the reason Damon hangs out with his blue-collar friends is that “any one of them” would leap to his defense at any moment. We need tribe. For a boy like “Will Hunting”, an orphan who dreams of having twelve brothers, any group that would defend him from the abuse he suffered in childhood is precious beyond belief.
Over the course of the film, Hunting meets Skylar (Minnie Driver) a rich, brilliant medical student who falls in love with him, who has an earthy sexuality and sense of humor that appeals to his street-level friends but also points the way to a better future.
And…she terrifies him. As leaving his “lowly” but honorable job terrifies him. If he leaves his friends, what will he have? If he trusts Skylar with his heart and she leaves him, what will he have?
Untangling that ball, exposing the fear, convincing Will Hunting that he is worth the risk, that there is a world beyond Boston (he has never been on a plane, or left the city at all) requires the support of everyone around him: all his friends, his mentor, his psychiatrist, his loving girlfriend.
And there is a scene when co-writer Ben Affleck, playing his best friend, tells him that his fondest wish is that one day Will Hunting will just take off, fulfill his genius destiny. Affleck’s Chuckie knows that Will needs him…but also that Will is being crippled by that need.
And in telling him point blank “go away” he is being a true friend. Go. Fly. We’ll be here if you ever need us. But if you can spread your wings and find a new home…do.
Will must have faith that if he has to climb that mountain alone for a time, there will be others on the far side. And they will be warm and welcoming.
Hey! You’re almost there! Keep climbing! Good job!
Yes, you will be alone for a time. Most drop away. They quit the karate lessons, stop submitting their stories, stop seeking true love.
And they join the crowd of those saying that it is impossible. That the pain and struggle isn’t worth it. That Soulmates don’t exist. That diet and exercise don’t work. That balancing your checkbook is folly.
But…if you keep going, somehow, because you have faith in yourself, or your companions, or a higher power…
You will meet the others who have struggled long and lonely, with faith, and they will welcome you with open arms.
Hey! You’re here! Isn’t the view wonderful?
And the friends who supported you along the way…and then let you go further than they could have…if they are real friends?
They’re happy for you. And if they weren’t real friends? You needed to leave them anyway.
Don’t be afraid to be alone. That’s the way you meet your true tribe, you know.
Strange isn’t it?