The View from the Bottom Rung
I stopped climbing ladders years ago.
With a routine task or inviting vista before—or, more accurately, above—me, I would shift my weight. Unsteady feet beat out a small and silent pattern around the ladder’s base, like a suitor practicing his steps one last time before asking his dream girl to dance.
Sucking air, I tried. I always tried. One rung, maybe two before the warm, electric dizziness traveled the length of my body. Vertigo by another name.
Technically, my fear rested upon the heights; lying with whatever waited at the top of the ladder or edge of a windy mountain road. Rooftops, scenic overlooks, ledges natural and man-made.
The ends terrified me, but not as much as the means. The climb itself provoked my panic. The act of moving one foot and then the other, surrendering something within myself even when all rightful logic placed me in control, brought me down. Past the bottom rung, back to solid ground.
Growing up within the church, I saw ladders everywhere. Chances arrived—to show some leadership, to use a talent God-endowed. As soon as my toes curled around the bottom rung, I felt a familiar fear and slid back to the patterned carpet that passed for terra firma.
First, I learned to deflect words of thanks or praise, shyly throwing a finger heavenward. Then I mastered seeing the compliment on its approach across the room, sidestepping the slightest glimmer in a well-meaning brother or sister’s eye.
Without even a makeshift theology of ambition, every whisper of success feels like a heist, pinching glory from the altar in plain sight. Best to melt the trophies without being asked, before the Almighty makes you grind them to dust and drink them down in some god-awful cocktail. Unable to trust myself, for fear I’d always help myself, I learned not to want or call anything mine.
With enough time and discipline, self-denial bends into nobler shapes.
With enough time and discipline, self-denial bends into nobler shapes. Eventually, a Jeremiah 29 vision took hold of me. Not the verses about plans and prospering, of course—but the ones which come before, in which the exiles faithfully build their houses, tend their gardens, bear their children, and embrace a destiny bound up in, to steal a phrase from Caedmon’s Call, the places God placed them.
Genuinely inspired, and walking a fine line in my exegesis of Wendell Berry, I read certain verbs as holier than others. Stay, not go. Sow, not reap.
So I kept off the ladder, remaining in my Midwest college town while friends split for St. Louis, Austin, and New York City. I showed up five days a week to an office peers left—some in the name of security, others for dreaming’s sake.
Like the prodigal son’s big brother, it’s easy to believe fidelity pays out. Maybe forsaking aspiration is its own reward, and maybe it delivers something different—simple gifts, a smoother side of the street, certainty you did the right thing.
When that assumption proves flimsy, you can fall apart. Or choose to take up with the Psalmist, strum a few notes on his harp, learn his lessons. Somebody always has it better, but nobody has it easy.
Now I’m sifting the terms and conditions as I pursue a modest ambition, reformed and ever-reforming. Stay holds no inherent holiness; neither does go. Both plowing old ground and chasing lush new pastures qualify as holy activities when the heart is right and wisdom attends each footfall.
I’m learning to say my own name—at a reasonable volume—in a crowded room because it’s a good name, the one I inherited. I admit I want to be read; not for any prizes being read affords, but because it binds me to you. This ambition neither denies itself nor longs to live beyond its limits.
Still, I fear the climb more than where the ladder leads. I watch writer friends who, with all their gifts and good intentions, clear a few rungs. Each step brings unspoken expectations to meet: tend all the fires, weigh in on every intervarsity controversy, let their voices carry beyond their expertise.
If I see you climbing well, I know which rungs to take and which to skip altogether, unafraid.
None of them will place a “for sale” sign on their souls for the sake of traveling higher; but ascending, they strain their muscles, holding whole worlds up like Atlas. And from a few rungs beneath, it all looks so damn tiring.
Let me never place a finger across anyone’s lips; I only want to ask what the climb costs and resolve to negotiate the distance together—me on my small ladder, you to whatever height God allows. If I see you climbing well, I know which rungs to take and which to skip altogether, unafraid.
Maybe, by the grace of God, we will take up our pens together, finally drafting a theology of ambition—and an accompanying set of Beatitudes.
Among the blessed: those who center other voices and celebrate someone else’s successes; who—especially if they carry privilege—feel free not to say everything they think, who even reserve words they would be justified in saying; who don’t strictly define terms or layout a singular vision, but seek a heart of softness; who prove willing to step off the ladder, or down a rung, when the climb holds somebody up or scuffs their own soul.
Climbing alongside each other, and before the face of God, we need not panic. We may write boldly or softly, stay to sow or travel for the purpose of reaping. Blessed are those who know their worth yet watch their steps.