For the most part conventional life pursuits are about ascent. Gain an education. Gain a good job. Gain net worth. Gain power and influence. Gain strength, and health. If you’re any kind of institution, it’s about gaining customers, or profits, or products. If you’re a nation its about gaining status and power, and in the darkest moments national sink to gaining by theft and destruction too, for the sake of their own ongoing ascent.
The Jesus way, and nature itself, both reveal that this paradigm is false. There’s a time for gaining and a time for losing. A time for ascent and descent. We can wish it were otherwise, but wishing isn’t reality. In the real world, loss and descent are part of the game.
Skiing teaches the glory of descent, and here’s what we can learn…
Ascent is struggle. There are no lifts this time of year where I live, at least not during the week. I put skins on my skis and head out the door because there’s a foot of fresh powder. This kind of experience is much better than sitting on a lift and being carried to the top, for a host of reasons I’ll not name here.
Still, ascent is a struggle, as in real life. It’s hard work, and creates weariness, much the same way that long hours, commutes, and juggling the numerous roles and expectations of adulthood is work. Richard Rohr calls the first half of life “building our container”. I call it ”skinning up the mountain.” Move, sweat, get out of breath, rest a bit, enjoy the beauty along the way, repeat.
Today the uphill’s even more challenging than usual. There’s a stiff breeze on the upper slope that’s created some wind slab snow pack, some ice, and some deep powder. A ski falls off under the pressure of the deep powder and putting it back on is no easy task on a 30 degree slope of powder with a wind chill that feels like 15F (-10C). Just like life, the uphill journey is work, with setbacks and battles along the way.
The summit is worth it. We all know that. The view from the top is amazing, or so we’re told. In truth, today’s view from the top is glorious, but staying isn’t possible because I feel the warmth created by the climb draining away and know the hypothermia is a “sit and relax” moment away in this relentless wind. As in life, nobody stays at the top. As Carl Jung says so eloquently: In the secret hour of life’s midday the parabola is reversed, death is born. The second half of life does not signify ascent, unfolding, increase, exuberance, but death, since the end is its goal
Descent is inevitable. If we believe Jung, though, the descent is summarized by loss, darkness, and death. In a world addicted to expansion and an upward trajectory, this is depressing news. Rather than receive it, many try to keep climbing. The GDP must expand. Our health must improve. Our sales must increase. Our accounts must stay full. Trying to keep all these plates spinning is exhausting, anxiety inducing, and folly. The downward trajectory is inevitable.
What makes the gospel beautiful is that the descent isn’t the end of the story.
With the skins removed from my skis and the heel locked down, I begin my descent. Anyone who skis knows that the beauty of it is that once you learn to let gravity do the work, it’s pure beauty and joy. Beginners usually try to fight going down. They need to contract their quad muscles all time in order to move across the mountain rather than down. In resisting the downward movement, they’re fighting the inevitable rather than enjoying it. Only when they surrender to gravity do they begin to find the joy!
What allows the skier to enjoy the down is the knowledge that, once at the bottom, the story’s not over. They either put the skins back on for a second lap, or they get in the car and head somewhere for some food and drink, stronger, wiser, and richer for the beauty of both ascent, summit, and descent.
Jesus knew that the descent of the cross wasn’t the end of the story, but a necessary chapter on the way to the fuller life ”out from the grave”. This is the way of what CS Lewis calls “the deeper magic”. I don’t need to hold on to job, reputation, income, health, or anything else, in pursuit of either a static summit, or an endless upward ascent. I can, indeed must, learn to let go, believing that the descent is as much a part of life as the ascent. Descent is strengthening, beautiful, and always a precursor to yet another chapter.
Do you believe this? That’s the challenge of Easter, of course.
Lean into the Jesus story this week, you’ll find him tell Carl Jung, “Yes Carl, descent is inevitable, but it’s not the end of the story. Just watch me. See you Sunday!”