Rock climbing as a metaphor for life: Conservatism vs. Liberalism

Douglas Ernst rock climb

Today I ran across an old picture of me ascending a rock climbing wall while at the Cumberland County fair in Maine. For some odd reason it dawned on me that rock climbing is a great metaphor for life. Before this picture was taken I had been working a booth for The Heritage Foundation, talking to the good people of Maine about the organization and its principles. A National Guardsman dared me to take the climb and, not one to back down from a challenge, I accepted.

Given that, I will now explain rock climbing as a metaphor for life, as well as how one’s worldview changes how they approach the wall.

In life, we all have an end point we’re shooting for. We all want to get to the top of some mountain. Some people want to prosper monetarily; others seek spiritual wealth. Some people seek knowledge; others wish to experience their fill of earthly pleasures. We all value different things, and as such our lives will all take vastly different twists and turns before we call it a day.

In between our starting point and the final destination there is an infinite number of paths laid out before us. We have a general idea of how we want to go about attacking the mountain, but there’s a big difference between gauging obstacles from afar and then experiencing them up close and personal.

Just like with rock climbing, sometimes the path that you thought would get you to the top in theory doesn’t work out in practice. You have to recalibrate your route. You might have to backtrack or go far out of your way to traverse a difficult section. In a worst-case scenario you might even fall off the wall, but thanks to a harness you don’t kill yourself and, if you so choose, you can start all over again — armed with the knowledge only failure can teach.

The conservative knows that every person who attempts the rock-climbing wall of life will have different strengths and weaknesses. Some people want to shoot for the top, and some don’t. Some people have amazing upper body strength, and others have an iron grip. Some people are light and some people are heavy. Some people are tall and some people are short. Given all these variables, the conservative generally doesn’t worry too much about what the guy next to him is doing and begins climbing away. He focuses on his technique. He monitors his strength. He takes time to stop and pause and re-evaluate his strategy when necessary. He isn’t afraid of falling. The conservative does all this, and in the long run he is generally rewarded for it.

The liberal, by contrast, does not fare too well. He complains about the size of the footholds. He looks at their placement on the wall and wonders who put them there and if there was some sort of nefarious plot connected to the decision process. He complains that he doesn’t have chalk, but the guy next to him does. He wants better shoes. It’s unfair that he has to climb in rainy weather, when the guy before him had nice weather. The winds are shifting one way or the other. He wants a different belay man. The list is endless. And at the end of the day the liberal sits at the bottom of wall, having wasted valuable time that would have been better spent just climbing the damn wall.

Sometimes, the liberal will look up and see his conservative counterpart smiling at the top of the mountain and will yell nasty things in his direction. The conservative will be accused of being a heartless bastard for basking in the sun’s rays and enjoying the view while the liberal down below must sit in the shadows — again, even if it was the liberal who chose to spend the limited time and resources afforded to him unwisely.

If you have a rock climbing wall around your neck of the woods, I suggest giving it a try. You’ll learn a lot about yourself, both mentally and physically.

See you at the top,


When we can see through walls, but not the debt in our face

New technology allows us to see light move at one trillion frames per second, but yet many citizens still can’t see the slow motion economic train wreck caused by out-of-control debt and a bloated federal bureaucracy.

How is it that it’s only a matter of time before Americans will be able to see through walls, but they can’t see the writing on the wall when it comes to debt and deficits? Professor Ramesh Raskar’s presentation on cameras that can film at one trillion frames per second is amazing, but it also demonstrates one of the problems conservatives have when it comes to talking about recessions, depressions and the economy in general.

Not too long ago I got to cover the Defending the American Dream Summit for work. While I was there, I got to talk to a number of older individuals who honestly believe that the standard of living their grandchildren will be lower because of the policies we are putting in place today. That’s true — in many respects — but it’s hard to get anyone to buy it when new technologies keep emerging that will change the course of human history.

How do you get people to understand the future that never was? While it’s a godsend that humans are constantly pushing the limits of what is possible, it also is maddening that so many are regularly susceptible to public policies that retard economic growth and the entrepreneurial spirit inside us. We adopt health care policies that hinder the innovation of lifesaving drugs while giving more people crappier coverage. We enact well-intentioned entitlement programs that turn able-bodied men and women into human gerbils waiting for the next government pellet — instead of encouraging them to break free of their mind-forged manacles. We use the tax code for social engineering instead of allowing the individual to keep more of his own money with which to build a brighter future.

The “poor” in the United States are not getting poorer. In fact, the “poor” (who are also not a static group) in the United States do quite well when compared with their counterparts around the world. Given that the standard of living generally goes up for all Americans each generation — even if the rates differ among social classes — conservatives need to find a way to talk about lost futures. It’s not enough to say that if we elect liberal politician “x” that life will be worse off, because benefits gained through technological advances mask all sorts of theft to our standard of living.

If conservatives are smart they will become tech-savvy nerds who not only care about cameras that can see around corners, but talented orators who can paint vivid pictures of the future by describing their vision for the world and the vision of their political opponents.

Holland Reynolds, Cross Country, and Conservatism

Holland Reynolds has something to teach all of us. However, I implore conservatives to take a good hard look at her story; it's a metaphor for the kind of American we seek to create.

California isn’t a lost cause after all!  Sure, most of us look at the sad liberal mess it’s become and shake our head (these days it’s only good at exporting jobs to its neighbors, and the worse their self-imposed financial disaster gets the more they stick to the same mentality that caused it).  However, the California State Cross Country Championships—and more specifically the tale of Holland Reynolds—is inspirational for a number of reasons.  It’s also a great metaphor for the kind of world conservatives seek to create.

In short, Holland collapsed on the home stretch to the finish line.  Anyone who has seriously run Cross Country knows what it’s like to completely empty your tank—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. However, many runners know that most of the time when people think they’ve dug deep down inside and have nothing left to give…that there is more to give. And Holland’s story proves it.

Who would have blamed this young girl after her collapse if she just closed her eyes, rolled over, and waited for coaches and trainers to give her medical attention? No one. But something inside said to ignore the pain and soldier on because her teammates were counting on her.  It often doesn’t make sense to the casual spectator why someone who has tumbled to the ground would rather crawl on their knees than to be carried off the field of play when injury strikes. The runner, however, knows better.

The fans on the sideline never saw the long lonely miles or the pre-dawn runs that helped propel her to the state championships to begin with. They could never know of the time, dedication, patience, and isolation that it takes to be an elite long distance runner.  They could never see the sacrifice it took behind the scenes to reach that level of success…

Imagine if we lived in a world where the kind of grit and determination demonstrated by Holland Reynolds was instilled in men and women across the country, and then applied in every aspect of their lives. Imagine if all those random knock downs and blow backs we face in our professional or personal lives triggered a response that said to buckle down, focus on the goal at hand, and move forward. Imagine if we thought about the coaches and mentors and loved ones who invested in us when we considered calling it quits—and then found a hidden supply of inner fortitude because it would hurt even more to let them down. Such a place would be a pretty nice world to live in, wouldn’t it?

The novice runner hits a wall and stops to catch their breath. The experienced runner (or people with the Holland Reynolds gene) knows that there is a second wind to be had. We can go faster and farther than we ever dreamed. We just need to cast off the mind forged manacles of ideologies that blame others for our problems, abdicate individual responsibilities to nameless and faceless third parties, and encourage sloth and apathy through perverted public policy.

Were there people ready and waiting to help Holland if she truly needed it? Of course. But those very same people knew that sometimes we can achieve great heights despite pain and suffering, and that perhaps the character built through such tribulations is far more valuable than the comfort that comes from having caretakers too quick on the draw.

Liberalism is a crutch that’s eager to be used and willing to convince even the able-bodied citizen they’d be better off with a cane. Conservatism is the coach that’s always there by your side in an emergency, but willing to watch you fall down because a.) it’s a part of life and b.) there’s a mettle inside most of us we’ll never realize is there unless we’re given a chance to find it.

Conservatives aren’t cold hearted, just as Holland Reynolds’ coach wasn’t when he watched her crawl over the finish line. In fact, the life lessons Holland will take away from that state championship race will stay with her the rest of her life.

While I can’t claim to ever have run with the elite, those are the gifts I took away from the sport years ago. It baffles my mind that so many runners out West are liberal, but perhaps conservatives like me have just been silent for too long. Regardless, I tip my hat to Holland Reynolds because she has something to teach all of us.

Rest up my friend. You earned it.