The Tip of the Pyramid

Dar and I returned home last Saturday from our Tahoe Rim Trail backpacking attempt. We had planned to hike 12 days, with ten nights spent camping and one night (on the sixth night) at a hotel in South Lake Tahoe, where we were also going to resupply. Planning, however, (as is often the case) was not enough. On the third day, an ignored injury in my feet became so aggravated that, when we arrived at that night’s campsite in Mount Rose, we gratefully accepted, instead, a ride down into Incline Village and the ER. The next day, saddened and disappointed, we made our way home.

The doctor at the ER had told me that rest was important for my feet to recover, and so for a few days I tried to lie on the couch, the bed, or the hammock, with my feet resting on cushions for most of each day. Such a small part of the body, and yet so critical that it can easily turn our whole world upside down. I was irritable from not being able to do much and from some discomfort in my feet, but mostly I struggled with strong feelings of inadequacy and failure. Why did I ignored the injury? Why did it have to flare up so strongly? Why could I not just walk through it despite the pain? This trip seemed yet another failed project in a long list of unfinished, unexplored, or un-pursued dreams.

As I lay harassing myself with my list of failures, a cheerful part of me piped up and said, “But what about the list of achievements?”
“Which achievements?” The critical part responded.
“Mount Rainier?” Suggested the cheerful one.
“Climbed with a group. Doesn’t count.” Retorted the Critic.
“Mount Olympus?” “Group. And Alan was a good leader. Doesn’t count.”
“Mount Shasta?” “Easier. With a group. Doesn’t count.”
“Yosemite Matterhorn?” “Cried all the way to the top. Cliff basically had to pull me up. Doesn’t count.”
“Half Dome?” “The guide (Con) had to carry my backpack down because I was so exhausted. Doesn’t count. And,” the critical part slyly added, “Notice all of these adventures were with a guide?”
“Ok, then what about the MBA?” “Liat forced me to study. Doesn’t count.”
“Stanford?” “They accepted me because my essay impressed them, and it wasn’t even about me, and it’s easy to graduate from English once you get in. Doesn’t count.”
“The kids?” “Don’t even get me started about that one!”

And so on, and so forth. That critical part always has an answer. No achievement ever counts.

I live my my life at the stressful tip of an upside-down pyramid. Every project I start is all-important, pivotal. If only this project succeeds (and succeeds according to a very specific set of rules and judgements), then I would be able to keep going to build the rest of the pyramid. Except, because each project is so pivotal, and because each project is so all-important, it is impossible ever to get out of the tip of the pyramid. Every project is again, and again, and again, the tip of the pyramid. Every project is all-important. Every project is pivotal. In every project my entire opinion of myself, my confidence, my worth, hangs in the balance. Each project is the tip, carrying a pyramid of personal failure and unworthiness.

Seems a bit hopeless, doesn’t it?

While hiking on our third day, both my feet were burning with an almost debilitating pain. There was no escape. Each step was excruciating. I tried putting moleskin and second-skin blister pads over the inflamed spots in an attempt to relieve the pressure. It helped, some. Mostly, however, I had to struggle with my thoughts. What is this pain? Is it just a blister? Did I just call pain from a blister debilitating and excruciating? Am I just spoiled? Is this something serious? Will I be able to keep hiking? Will we be near a town when we get to the road? Can we find a doctor? Is this the end of our hike?

In backpacking, many people say that 99% is mental, and the other 1% is mental as well. Fortunately, I am often my higher self in nature. That third day, I breathed in and out and tried to focus my thoughts away from the unhelpful ones. I trained my mind toward accepting the pain in my feet as it was. I reminded myself that most other parts of my body (my hands, for example, or the tip of my nose) were not in pain at all. I repeated some mantras (“I am well, I am safe, I am loved”). I sang songs to myself (“My Favorite Things” was more helpful than the moleskin, let me just say). Dar and I walked nearly 16 miles that day and climbed (and, worse, descended) 2500 feet in elevation. When we got to the ER, I still shouldered my backpack and walked in. After all, I was well, I was safe, and I was loved.

It’s nice to remember these things that I appreciate about myself. It’s nice to remember that on Mount Olympus I had so much energy that I ran circles around everyone else. It’s nice to remember that despite crying I was able to climb to the top of the Matterhorn, that I swung myself out to the crazy ledge and succeeded in climbing up, that (with Cliff’s support and protective rope) I did get myself all the way up and then down, that it was the most difficult climb I had ever done. It is nice to remember that I got good grades in classes with but also without Liat, and nice to remember that I had fun at Stanford and got to do some pretty fabulous things (like go to England and New York to research an author for my honor’s thesis). It’s nice to remember that the fabric of my being is made up of some shining spots, and even nicer to remember that I am the one deciding where I’m going to keep my focus, on those shining spots, or on the less brilliant ones.

I am realizing that in writing the last few paragraphs, I managed to turn the pyramid right-side-up.


Just by focusing on some positive things.

Dar and I will be back at Tahoe. Probably not this season, since we still have a lot of plans this summer. But we’ll be back. In August, I am going to Glacier Peak (Washington) with Cliff. In September I signed up for a weeklong outdoor meditation retreat at Spirit Rock. We would like to take the kids to Oregon for a few days, maybe check out the coast there and the dunes. I also wanted to see the waterfalls around Oroville and to walk 20-lake basin in Inyo National Forest. And Dar said that when my feet are all healed (which they almost are), we can go on the backpacking trip I’ve been planning from Yosemite Valley to Wawona. That should be fun. So, yeah, I still have that fire burning beneath my backside, but I promise, this time, to take good care of my feet – and the rest of me, including my wandering, often critical mind. That, in itself, is an adventure for life.

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