Photo: The author at Tremblant, Quebec. (courtesy of Alan Perry)
Ask anybody who knows me where I can be found in the winter and they’ll direct you to a mountain. I confess: I am an avid skier. In just a few days, the whole world will watch in awe as skiers careen down steep courses in a bid for Olympic gold, silver and bronze. It seems like a good time for me to reflect on this sport that I’ve come to love.
Recently, I was in Tremblant, Quebec and enjoyed some steeper and more challenging runs than what we normally ski at our small Ontario hill. In addition to the more challenging terrain, we encountered freezing temperatures after driving through an extreme blizzard that made our 5 ½ hour trip into a 9 hour ordeal.
People may ask: Why do you do it? It’s a fair question. For me, my skiing life has been one of the many contexts in which I have confronted serious questions about spirituality. Think about it. A skier loses essential contact with the very ground on which they stand. Once the skis are on, and the skier stands on the snow or ice, the traction we normally experience when our shoes or boots are on the snow is gone. Since skiers are also on a slope – a literal “slippery slope” – we have to learn new ways to maintain our balance and some techniques to move ourselves where we want to go.
Isn’t that a metaphor for life’s spiritual journey? We often find ourselves needing to dig deeply into our personal resources when the normal, expected ways of getting through the day to day routines just won’t work. That’s when we find ourselves asking what it is we truly need, what we need to let go of, and where we really want to go.
Having spent a number of years in a Jesuit educational community, I learned to focus on the interior movements of attraction and resistance that we become conscious of when we reflect on our experience, our world and our relationships. Skiing provides a great environment for becoming more conscious of both attraction and resistance. When we ski, our desire to glide down the mountain often conflicts with our resistance to doing so. I find myself asking what it is that pushes people to overcome many fears – fear of heights, fear of losing balance, fear of crashing, falling or breaking bones – to follow an attraction to flying downhill for recreation.
A personal experience may help to illustrate. I learned to ski as an adult. One of my desires was to be able to ski well enough to keep up with my husband and our friends who had all skied since they were children. They didn’t seem to experience the same fear and trepidation I did. They enjoyed the speed while I was often terrified. So, I thought, I will go off by myself and practice. Since we live very near the local ski hill, I decided to take advantage and to ski for an hour or so every morning before work. Surely, I would become more comfortable with skiing and come to enjoy it in the way that they did.
One day, I set out on my skis only to find the hills extremely icy. Icy terrain is much more difficult to ski on than soft and pliable snow. Since my ability level was very low, I was unable to cope with the conditions and quickly decided to take off my equipment and go home. After all, if it wasn’t fun there was no point in doing it, I thought.
Something significant happened to me that day, however. After putting my skis, boots and poles away in the car and getting behind the wheel to head home, I experienced a shift in intention. Something within me called as a challenge. I turned off the car’s engine, got my boots back on, hoisted my skis to my shoulder and headed back to the lift.
What happened that day is an everyday illustration of what happens to us spiritually when we experience a movement calling us beyond a resistance, a fear, a time of grief, a prejudice – to do something we really desire. And, as it is with the spiritually motivated life, in skiing I had to learn techniques, new orientations, new ways of balancing and moving in the context that had previously seemed so perilous to me.
Do you have a similar experience in which you’ve confronted a deep-seated resistance and found a pathway through to new life? Have you ever experienced a shift in your desire when a perceived barrier turns into a challenge, and then finally, into an opportunity? If so, these everyday occurrences become treasures of experience that build confidence in our ability to transform, to move creatively in new directions.
The history of human achievement has been one of pushing past obstacles, weakness and fear in order to follow our heart’s desire. We need not look only to Olympic athletes to find examples of this kind of interior shift, of dedication to transformation and attaining our desires. It is not just something that superheroes do. We can all look into our own lives to find examples of “going for gold.”
In the next while, we’ll be inundated with Olympic news, with images of athletes attempting to do what has never been done before. It’s a celebration of human perseverance, stamina and dedication. But let’s not simply project these achievements onto a small number of athletes who strive for success half-way across the world. Let it be something that unites us in a spirit of conscious striving by linking our own experiences with theirs.