I’ve been tempted to write this post for more than a decade, but the picture above, of the line to reach the summit of Mount Everest stretching out like the ticket line for an Avengers movie, was the last straw. As Popeye said, “That’s all I can stand, cause I can’t stands no more!”
The operative words are life competence and narcissism. Climbing Everest requires and American to pay around $65,000, not counting travel and related expenses. It also involves risking one’s life, as the many perpetually frozen corpses on the way to the top vividly illustrate. And what, exactly, is one pretending to accomplish by reaching the top of Mount Everest?
I will defend to the death one’s right to spend one’s own money and time any way an individual pleases, as long as he or she isn’t neglecting a duty or harming someone in the process. Agreeing that people have the right to waste their time and money—and precious residence on Earth—in pursuit of phony achievements that in truth achieve nothing is very different from pronouncing it right and good are not the same thing. If the only way you can claim that your life has meaning is to climb Mount Everest, you have flunked Life 101. Asserting that climbing to the top of a big mountain—with the assistance of paid guides who will literally drag you there if necessary—is admirable, a mark of character, and something to regard as a substantive life achievement is the height of delusion and narcissism—the Everest of delusion and narcissism, in fact.
See, climbing the highest mountain peak is a metaphor for rising to a challenge that is worth rising to, not a challenge itself. The first explorers who reached the top of Everest accomplished something. The 6, 561st climber to do it wasn’t an explorer, he was a tourist. If someone wants to visit Disneyland, that’s fine, but it’s nothing to boast about.
An achievement is building something, fixing something, helping someone, creating something, changing something, giving something, growing something, making a life other than your own, a community, a family, a nation, a culture, a little bit better, richer, more civilized. What does trying to climb Everest contribute to anything but the list of stupid and pointless deaths? That $65,000 could start a business, save a life, send someone to college or a trade school, feed hungry children, or save abused animals. If someone tried to impress me by saying, “I climbed to the top of Everest!,” my reaction would the same as if they said, “I once won a hot dog eating contest!” except that I would add, “Ah! You’re an idiot, then.” At least the hotdog eating contest didn’t cost $65,000 to enter.
Our culture has somehow become so perverted that it cannot distinguish real , meaningful achievements from phony ones. Kim Kardashian became a rich celebrity and made her whole. slutty family celebrities along with her because she made a sex tape and has an unusually large and shapely butt. At least her tape and her butt entertain and give pleasure to others: these aren’t great contributions to the culture, but they are contributions. Kim is more worthy of respect and admiration than someone whose claim to respect is climbing a mountain.
Today, Memorial Day, we honor men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation and the values it represents, not to fill in a “bucket list,” not so they could boast about it or bolster their self-esteem, but because they understood the difference between what matters in life,. and what, in the end, is trivia. Those rich mountain climbers are the victims of a sick culture that no longer makes that distinction. My father led us to the top of El Capitan in Yosemite, because, as a father, he felt it was hsi duty to enrich the experiences of his children. Every step he took was painful, because a hand grenade had mangled his left foot during the war. That climb was an achievement, and he never boasted about it to anyone.
Recognizing these artificial heroes for what they are is part of the trail down the mountain to a society that knows what is a genuine achievement, and what is only grandstanding and self-indulgence.