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Inside looking out: Climbing the mountain of life

At a high school in Anytown, USA, the number one ranked student in the class delivers a graduation speech to his or her classmates.

Imagine a valedictorian named Frank steps to the podium.

“I’d like to talk about the mountain that you’ll have to climb to find your personal success in life,” he said to his fellow graduates. He suddenly stopped speaking and looked across the venue filled with blue mortarboards and bright gold gowns.

“But how would I know anything about what brings personal success? I’m 18 years old. I know algebra, but how is that going to help me now?

Everyone laughed. Then Frank said, “I’m going to let a person a lot wiser than me tell you about climbing that mountain.”

A gray-haired man stepped to the podium. “My name is Thomas,” he said. “I’m 70 years old and I’m going to tell you my story.

“It was a long, hard climb up the Mountain of Life, and about halfway, I got tired and I wanted to stop and go back down, thinking there’s got to be an easier way to get to the top. I decided to keep climbing, but instead of looking up to where I wanted to go, I kept my eyes focused on what was in front of me.

“Finally, after nearly falling two or three times, I made it all the way up to the top. Upon the peak, I found money and power. Lots of money there was and the power to have everyone below me do what I told them to do. My education and my college degree were paying off. I was the king of the mountain!

“I gifted my very young wife with expensive jewels and hundred-dollar bottles of wine. I was her sugar daddy and she was my trophy wife who paraded around with me at cocktail parties and company executive dinners. We traveled to the Fiji Islands, to Greece. We chartered a yacht half the size of a football field and sailed around the tropics.

“All along my young wife’s affection for me was lacking and I found out later she had been giving her affection to her personal trainer, but I didn’t care. I became a workaholic. I continued to make more money, so much that I had three accountants manage my finances.

“But one day I met a young boy sitting on a bench with his mother outside my office building. They were sharing a sandwich. I pulled out a $50 bill and I said to her, ‘Take this and buy yourselves a nice lunch.’ She shook her head and gave the money back. ‘Thank you,’ she said, ‘but no thank you.’?”

“?‘My son and I share a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on Friday afternoons,’ she told me. ‘It’s to honor my husband who’s Pete junior’s father. He died in the war in Afghanistan. He and Peter used to make one PBJ sandwich together every afternoon for lunch when he was home from the Army. They each ate half of the sandwich and his dad told him that no matter what happened, they would always be a half of each other.’?”

“The woman’s story punched me right in the gut. I dropped my head on my pillow that night and I realized that my life was full of money but half of nothing else.

“Like it will happen to all of you as it did with me, the time comes when you’re older and you have to get off the top of the mountain and be forced to climb back down. So down I went, but when I looked toward the ground below me, I stopped my steps. There was a cemetery lined with headstones and I saw where there was room for one more marker that would have my name on it.

“I wasn’t ready yet to ‘cash in my chips,’ as they say. So, I walked around the mountain instead of going all the way down and I took interest in so many things I never did while I was at the top. I played softball in the park. I helped my neighbor plant her iris garden. I went fishing at sunrise. I drank cold beer with my friend while we watched the sun set. I spent an afternoon unloading pallets of food for a church pantry and it was the best backache I ever had. I sat in solitude for an hour each morning in my backyard, enjoying the quiet that I had never heard before.

“I remember that the late George Harrison once said, ‘When you’ve seen beyond yourself, then you may find that peace of mind is waiting there.’?”

“I leave you with a final lesson from a scene in ancient history. When Alexander the Great had conquered the entire world, his curiosity sent him to meet Diogenes who had rejected all materialism and any ambition to climb that mountain and was living the simple life in the streets of Athens.

“What do you desire that I can do for you?” Alexander the Great asked the cynical man.

“Diogenes looked over the shoulder of the most powerful leader of the world and replied, ‘Stand away. You’re blocking my light.’?”

“And one last thing before I go. Don’t forget to share your peanut butter and jelly sandwich because being half of someone you love is better than being full of yourself.”

Rich Strack can be reached at richiesadie11@gmail.com.