By Becky De Oliveira

On June 27, 2006—it was a Tuesday—I reached the summit of Mount Rainier in Washington State. It’s 14, 411 feet—the perfect ice-cream scoop mountain that forms the dramatic backdrop of most postcard scenes of Seattle. I was thirty-four years old, and I’d wanted to stand at the top of that mountain all my life. My dad started my training in January of 2006. Every day during that bitterly cold English winter, dad made me run hills in our Hertfordshire town north of London. He instructed me to fill old milk gallon bottles with water and stuff these into my pack until it weighed 50 pounds and then carry it for an hour or two at a time to strengthen my shoulders. We climbed Mt. Snowdon in Wales in the spring, and the week before the big climb, we went to 10,000 feet at Camp Muir to acclimatize, and I practiced self-arrests with an ice axe, hurling myself down a bank of snow and trying to stop my slide.

“The summit is not your goal,” dad reminded me over and over again. Rainier is less than half the height of Everest, but dangerous. Quickly changing weather, combined with crevasses, avalanches and other dangers make this mountain, along with many others of similar size, objects to be approached with caution and respect. Over one hundred people have died on Rainier since the late nineteenth century, including the legendary American mountaineer Willie Unsoeld. “Do not lose respect for the mountain,” my father said. And as for our real goal? “The parking lot,” dad said. “When we’re at the summit, we’re only halfway. We have to make it back to the car. That’s the goal. This is not a hill worth dying on.”

I worried endlessly about our absolute turnaround time—we’d set it for 9 a.m. on summit day. If the clock struck 9, we had to turn around and head down no matter how close we were to the top. Even if the summit were only a couple hundred feet away. I was so paranoid at the idea of coming so far and working so hard and not reaching the summit that when the guy at the front of our four-person team shouted that we could clip out of our ropes, I misunderstood and thought he was saying we had to head down. He repeated himself twice before I finally understood that I had reached the crater. The summit was a twenty minute walk away, across a huge flat volcanic basin. And it was only six o’clock in the morning.

Climbing a mountain is never just about the mountain: It’s about the climber. It’s partly about the problem of goal setting. What is a worthy goal? How do you know when your goals are out of proportion with your values? Is it possible—even likely—that your pursuit of one goal actually compromises your ability to achieve another, more important goal? Back in 2006, I wanted to stand on top of Rainier more than anything. I was the mother of two small children. My family had been through a very challenging and dis- heartening year. We were preparing to move to Berrien Springs, Michigan—a place I’d never even visited—and I was terrified about my whole life. It felt as though if I could climb Rainier, I could do anything. I would have hope again. I could be proud of myself and believe in myself. If I failed, well, the inverse of all those things was true. I needed to climb that mountain. I would have very likely taken foolish risks to achieve that goal if left to my own devices.

Now if you had asked me, “Is reaching the summit of Rainier more important than seeing your kids again?”—if you’d broken it down in those terms, of course I would have said no. Climbing that mountain is less important to me than all kinds of things. But goals are funny; they take on a whole hulking life of their own and they can make you lose perspective unless you get into the regular habit of asking yourself what you’re trying to achieve—really—and whether the things you are most focused on are helping you to achieve your real goals.

Christopher Kayes, a specialist in organizational behavior, wrote a book called Destructive Goal Pursuit that focuses on the 1996 Mount Everest disaster finding in it insights about the dysfunctions that are common in goal- setting. He identifies a problem he calls goalodicy. This word is a combination of the words “goal” and “theodicy”— a philosophical term used to describe the actions of people who hold onto beliefs even when all evidence contradicts the validity of these beliefs.

I would not presume to tell you what your priorities should be—or which hill you should die on, if any. I would only suggest that you remember to check in with yourself about your goals and activities to make sure they really reflect the things that are most important to you as a disciple of Christ. I’m not suggesting you allow yourself to be driven by fear or that you become timid or cowardly. As people of faith, we have every reason to be bold. Live boldly in the knowledge that what you do can make a tremendous difference to other people.

Isaiah 54:2 reads, “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.” This seems like a good place to start as we consider how to make a difference in a big, complex, beautiful, awful, wonderful, tragic, depressing, and exhilarating world. A big tent. Strong stakes. Lots of people inside. What can we do to bring meaning and joy and self-worth and courage to the people around us?

The three rules of mountaineering: It’s always further than it looks. It’s always taller than it looks. And it’s always harder than it looks. The first rule of Christianity: “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness”