The other day, yesterday actually, I was “skinning” up Vail Mountain shortly after getting off of work at the Firehouse. Skinning is essentially hiking up hill with skis on. The use of synthetic “skins” on the underside of the skis provides one-way friction and prevents the skis from sliding backwards. I’d imagine the activity was originally developed for a practical use. I was simply doing it to get some exercise.

I skin a lot these days, usually early in the morning with my dog, Sophie. It serves as both a means of fitness and an opportunity for uninterrupted thought. The other morning, yesterday actually, my thoughts were on progress.

I had just come off shift for the last time with a young man I’d worked with for the past couple of years. We had become friends. He had become a good firefighter. This kid, let’s call him Pam, had been hired away from Vail Fire by a larger Front Range department. Though he’d have to start over at his new department, the opportunity was too great to pass up. In three years Pam, a kid I helped mentor and train, would be financially compensated more than I’m paid as a 16 year Veteran at an Officer’s rank. He’d run more calls, gain more experience and have more opportunity for advancement. I was happy for him, certainly, but I couldn’t help wondering where I’d gone wrong?

As I slid uphill, sweat beading up on my forehead, I metaphorically considered the course I’d take to the top of the mountain alongside the path I’d taken up until this point in my life. Though I was always moving, I wondered just how much progress I had made? I questioned my productivity. Was I making the most of each step? Where would I be in three years? What was my purpose in life? (Yea, it got pretty deep).

Somewhere out there amongst the trees I noticed something. Actually it was the trees that I noticed, each one content in their individual place. Then the sky – I noticed the sky. It was blue – really blue. Just then a cool, bordering on cold, breeze buzzed my hatless head on its way into my lungs. It was clean, an invigorating reminder of why I lived here. And that’s when I realized something. Perhaps progress was ambiguous?   Maybe I’d been defining it according to society’s established norms and otherwise unfamiliar principles? Maybe productivity, for me, isn’t measured solely in dollars and cents or task completion? Through comparison to others, I had lost sight of the elements of my life that supply the most joy. Yes, I wish I made more money and ran more calls. I’d love an opportunity for advanced training and career progression. However, pursuit of those desires would mean a sacrifice to other, more important, components of my life. I’d be more productive professionally at the expense of my productivity as a father, husband, friend, athlete, intellectual, etc.

There is a balance necessary for happiness. At least that is how it appears to me. Conceptually, maintaining the balance is simple. In reality though, it takes work. The world is inundated with the distractions of short-term progressions both at the individual and social levels. They are bright, shiny and initially quite appealing. All that glitters is not gold, however. Traditional pursuit of progress without diligent consideration for its impact on the collective balance is not sustainable and ultimately destructive. Not only have I felt this on a personal level but lately I’ve felt it on an environmental level as well.

As I mentioned, the wilderness is something of a sanctuary for me. I gain strength and perspective from my experiences within the natural world. I believe there is no place more representative of God – No place from which a greater spiritual presence might be found. There is no place more deserving of protection, more filled with potential, no better ambassador for balance than that coming from the mountains and the sea. Much as I know I cannot personally pursue wealth at all costs, I know society cannot either. While I understand the need to survive and to flourish, I hope we can find a way to realize it without irreparable consequence. I mentioned in an earlier blog (Good Morning America) that I am no longer content maintaining a personal status quo. I see a world struggling, as I am, to find a balanced future – One that calms the insatiable needs of competitive comparison while allowing for the existence of healthy ambition and joy. That would be true progress…

rs