There is a well-known experiment involving a group of ten monkeys, a ladder and bananas suspended from the ceiling. (Yes, this sounds like a joke; only without the Irish priest or the pub. I am smiling because in all my ten years writing Sabbath Moment, I always wanted to start a one with a sentence about monkeys.)
When the first monkey (headed for the bananas) touched the ladder, the researchers hosed all the monkeys with cold water. Soaked and confused, the various monkeys tried to reach the bananas again, but whenever any one of them touched the ladder, all were punished. Soon enough, the monkeys learned the lesson: the ladder is taboo.
The researchers then exchanged one of the experienced monkeys for a new one. As soon as he entered the room, the new monkey started toward the ladder. But before he could touch it, the other monkeys pulled him away. After enough thwarted attempts, the monkey abandoned his efforts.
The researchers then exchanged another new monkey. After time, not one of the original monkeys remained. Are you ready for this? The lesson endured: No monkey ever climbed the ladder. I confess I wasn’t ready for that. (Incidentally, if any of monkeys had tried the ladder, they would have succeeded. Researchers did away with the water hose early on in the experiment.)
Here’s my question: What is it that defeats us? Deflates us? Demoralizes us?
I ask because there are many ladders we don’t climb. For any number of reasons.
Or we try for a while; and then we quit.
Or, we have been told, “Quit trying. You can’t make a difference here. You don’t have what it takes.”
That puts the kibosh on any enthusiasm in a “never enough” world–be it faith or courage or success or passion or beauty.
It is as if something insidious crept into our spirit, partly fatigue, or partly something else we cannot name. Regardless, in the end, we believe the messages to be the truth about our life or ourselves. They become our narrative, our script.
“I can’t,” I will say. Who told you that? Does it matter? In the end I pull my punches… and I stay off the ladder.
Some of these messages have more stick-um than others. Some we lug around for decades–from our family of origin. (I have a suspicion that there are designated family message luggers.) Some messages are internal (we just make them up). Some are odd reinforced prejudices. (Even Jesus had to listen to this stuff, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”)
But this is not just about building our self-esteem. It is about the reservoir we draw upon, in order to live with our whole heart.
We get hosed. Sometimes, it is the sheer whammy from an unexpected deluge. Storms. Say, the daily news. Or, any number of life’s ill-fated bumps.
In our case, this week, here on Vashon, it was snow. Here at my house, we woke up to over a foot, wet and heavy, in the morning still coming down, the dreamlike beauty, belying the harm.
Beleaguered from the weight
Trees snap and split
Through the woodland, rifle shots echo
As branches relent, now broken
Fir, Hemlock, Cedar, Alder, Madrone
All wounds now inviting care
I enjoyed this piece of arboristic advice… “after a storm, prune the broken branches, but don’t worry if the tree’s appearance isn’t perfect. With branches gone, the tree may look unbalanced or naked. You’ll be surprised how fast they will heal and grow new foliage. A storm-damaged tree will be in a state of stress or shock. Make sure your tree first aid is helping the tree and not creating more stress.” Sounds like some people I know… just sayin’
So. How do we re-calibrate? (I think of Lucy yelling at Charlie Brown, “Just quit doing that!”)
During a rock-climbing lesson, Dan Clark stops on the vertical incline, as if paralyzed.
He writes, “I could see an outcrop for my right foot, but no place where I could place my hands or left foot.”
Yes, he felt stuck. Hopeless perhaps.
The instructor, not far from Dan on the face of the incline, tells him, “Take the step.”
“Are you crazy?”
“Once you lift yourself up you may find something you can’t see from where you stand.”
“Well what happens if I don’t find anything?” Dan is incredulous.
“If you don’t find anything,” the instructor says calmly, “fall back on the harness and try it again.”
As in… let go.
Perhaps of our expectations? Or perhaps our notion of what we think we see?
Is it possible that these notions (or assumptions) are the baggage concealing an incredible gift? That at any given moment, we have the power to say: This is not how the story is going to end.
Maybe, just maybe, we need to embrace that gift today.
Reminders don’t hurt…
Last week I told you a reader asked, “Who died and voted you God?” (Who do you think you are?), and how that plays into my own dispiriting script. My good friend Mary Anne Radmacher wrote, “You know who you are. You don’t have to backpedal. If telling the truth about who you are loses a few social media followers then you needed to lose them. And you should tell her that you called the holy fire, and you take it down your throat even if it looks a lot like a single malt scotch. Go ahead tell her, tell her you’re God with Skin. Inevitably when you asked the question – WWJD (what would Jesus do?) someone is going to counter, ‘Who Wants Jack Daniels?’ Both questions deserve our undivided attention.”
“Climb the ladder. Take the step.”
A five-year-old girl who, upon the arrival of her baby brother, insisted that she spend some time alone with him. Her parents agreed, but listened in on the baby monitor as the sister closed the door and walked over to her brother’s bed. After a minute of silence, she told her baby brother, quite firmly: “Please tell me about God and Heaven. I have almost forgotten.”
We do forget.
Instead we internalize the sway of the “water hose.”
I write about sanctuaries, places where we remember who we already are. About the abundance inside.
Here’s the deal: When we internalize (and live out) any message that we are not enough, we are not our best selves. And because of that, we misunderstand, we belittle, we dismiss and we judge. We live deflated and sad and afraid. And we forget or overlook the fact that in the sentence (above) is the word best, meaning a self capable to rise above. So we do not climb the ladder. We do not take the step.
We may not see what is already there. Or, what is already inside of us.
Here’s what I know: When life’s choices are viewed in terms of “systems thinking” rather than “straight-line linear thinking,” then outcomes other than giving up or escape become possible. One outcome is the mobilization of what is inside–such as resiliency, courage, determination, persistence, resistance, self-regulation, stamina, audacity and faith.
Remember this: Many battles can be won simply by not giving up. One does not have to conquer the other.
Just like Dan Clark on the mountain, when you don’t give up, when you know you have a future (even if that future is only the next step), you become less reactive, less anxious, less blaming, more imaginative and more responsible.
“Climb the ladder. Take the step.”
I spent the whole weekend cleaning up after the storm. To be specific, beginning to clean up. It’ll take another week. I won’t lie to you. I teared up, looking the damage. Loss of part or all of some of my favorite trees: Katsura, Styrax, Empress, Plum. Some will survive (and even thrive). It just doesn’t look good now.
Did you see the full moon this week? Last night, the sky mostly clear, with gossamer clouds gliding by. And a song played in my mind and my heart. “And when the night is cloudy. There is still a light that shines on me. Shine until tomorrow. Let it be. Let it be.”
And I said the only thing that could be said. Amen.
POEMS AND PRAYERS
Time to Talk
When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, “What is it?”
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.
The Hope of Loving
What keeps us alive, what allows us to endure?
I think it is the hope of loving,
or being loved.
I heard a fable once about the sun going on a journey;
to find its source, and how the moon wept
without her lover’s
We weep when light does not reach our hearts. We wither
like fields if someone close
does not rain their