“Toward the top,” the guidebook warned, “the trail is rock and scree. Some climbing may be required, and care must be taken during the descent.”
I ignored it. I didn’t know what “scree” was, most guides said the hike was manageable for inexperienced hikers, and I really, really wanted to be able to say that I had climbed a mountain while I was in Ireland. So last week, during our trip there, my husband and I headed out to conquer Great Sugar Loaf in County Wicklow.
So now I know what scree is, and it’s this: a mound of small stones covering the slope of a mountain. No, let me correct that. It’s a mound of loose small stones, from grape- to fist-sized, covering the slope of a mountain.
You know how, when you are walking on loose stones or gravel, some of them will shift unexpectedly under your feet? Scree is like that, only sloped, and constantly sliding downward. It’s almost impossible to plant your foot: if you set your heel down, it will slide, and send stones pinging down the slope after it.
Scree is exhausting – or at least it was for us. My husband and I found ourselves walking back and forth on the mountain, picking well-trod paths through the scree made by hikers before us, in hopes the ground would be more stable. We looked for handholds and footholds, only to find occasionally that even large strongly-rooted rocks would shift or fall from beneath our feet. And the way back down was a careful study in picking our steps: we slid more than once, even in our good hiking shoes, sending a scattering of rocks bouncing down to the base.
I’m pleased we got to enjoy the views from the top of Great Sugar Loaf, and they were more than worth the effort it took to see them. But dealing with all of that scree made me think of how small instabilities accumulate into larger ones to create a foundation-that-isn’t, a shifting, sliding slope both treacherous and untrustworthy.
Stable ground is important. And stable ground starts small, with small practices, small consistencies, and attention to small details. In our life, the fault lines of sin and separation from God often only start to show after a series of small and seemingly-insignificant choices: thoughts that we don’t weed out, what-if games we allow ourselves to play, less-than-ideal circumstances that we permit or encourage.
I found myself thinking of this recently in regards to my tendency to worry and work myself into an anxious state. I know there are small choices I can make – daily! – to prevent my worries and fears from overwhelming me or becoming acute in the future. These choices involve things like prayer and Bible study, of course, but also other things like practicing deep breathing exercises (which become vital on, say, an aircraft beset by turbulence). If I do these small things daily, then when problems come up I’m prepared: the foundation I’ve built is stable. If I forget or shrug it off (which I sometimes do when I’m feeling fine and peaceful) then when the moment of need comes (as it did during our wild-winged, drunken descent to the runway on 25 mph winds), I’m often unprepared: sliding all over and grasping loose rocks as I try to climb the slope.
The same goes for all of us, no matter our struggles. Do you struggle with envy? Envy doesn’t start as a ravenous, full-blown desire to be someone else or have someone else’s stuff. It starts small: as admiration-bordering-on-longing, on the assignment of high value to very particular things. Do you struggle with pride? It doesn’t immediately come as a fully-developed sense of one’s own self-importance. It starts with thoughts we often shrug off: I’m so good at this. I know best. Nobody else understands this as well as me. I’m the only one who could possibly be equipped to make this decision.
I’ve always believed life is the sum of a series of small choices. But slipping and sliding everywhere on the scree reminded me of how frustrating and overwhelming it can be when we’re eventually required to face the sum of all those small decisions all ta once. Too many prideful thoughts at some point will transform you into the sort of person who believes – even if you don’t say it aloud – that you know more than God about who you are and what you need. Too much gazing at and assigning value to the possessions or qualities of others and you develop a case of envy. Too much neglect of the everyday practices that head off worry and separation from God will pile up eventually and force you to confront your lack.
So start small with improvements, with change, with your desire to grow closer to God. Tend to small, good thoughts. Note and abolish those dangerous, deceptive ones. Make the minor adjustments in your driving now so that you don’t have to jerk the wheel later to keep the car in the road. Focus on the little things in order to climb a mountain, because stability matters more than you might expect, and it starts with nothing more than a pebble.
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