Posted by: Bill Tracy | January 3, 2010

Leave Things Be

Mount Timpanogos, UT

Mount Timpanogos, UT. Image courtesy U.S. Forest Service.

“Beware going into the woods alone.” That bleak warning probably goes back to our cave-dwelling ancestors, and in more recent times has launched a thousand horror movies. I’m aware of the dangers, but I’ve never been afraid. I’ve been going into the woods alone since childhood. As a Boy Scout I won the confidence to know how to take care of myself out there. I’ve been lost in the woods – without ever triggering a great search and rescue effort. I’ve been tracked by a mountain lion in the woods; today I don’t even have any bite marks. Yes, the Boy Scouts taught me how to be prepared, but I’m not sure I was fully prepared for one experience in the mountain woods of Utah.

“Professional development” was all the corporate buzz 20 years ago. I don’t know if it still is, and I guess I don’t care either. In the days when I participated in that corporate culture, “professional development” was a popular, even invincible, justification for all sorts of corporate shenanigans. Put “professional development” on a budget item or expense report and it slid through like a kid on a water slide – all joy and no questions asked! For me, it ended up having major life consequences.

Memory is not absolute, but I believe it was the summer of 1991 that American Trucking Associations decided to do some “professional development” on me. They paid $5000 to send me to a five-day “Advanced Principle-Centered Leadership” program with the Stephen Covey group. Covey is the renowned author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The book was published in 1989, and by 1991 Covey had become a star in the universe of professional development. For an undergraduate degree at Rutgers University in the 1970s, I had paid a total of $2000 tuition over four years. Add another $2000 for a year or so of grad school and you still don’t get to what Covey charged for five days. Surely I had attained some pinnacle of human importance. This newly developing professionalism was scheduled to bloom at the base of Mount Timpanogos at the Sundance Resort (yes, of Robert Redford fame) in Utah.

Monday morning I met my classmates. Mostly they were senior managers for this country’s elite corporations. (By elite I mean ones having enough loose change to send people on these kinds of luxury adventures.) Exxon (now ExxonMobil) was represented. At least one major airline had a player in the game. Dan Goldin, soon to be named NASA Administrator by president George Bush, was there in his capacity as a senior engineering manager at a top aerospace company. Surely we were a group worthy of Utah’s lofty peaks, me included! Let the professional development begin!

In hindsight, the program was no better than average for its sort. I remember some useful listening exercises, a few interesting outdoor exercises, but I recall nothing really bracing. The directive to be introspective and work in your evenings on a “personal mission statement” was unique – and mostly lost on the practical, bottom-line management types there. They had already achieved what they saw as a high level of success, and they weren’t about to go see what their inner child, or something like that, might have to say about it. One guy did get sufficiently worked up about that challenge to call his father on the last day and seek his advice on the way he was succeeding in life. He had become somewhat ungrounded by it all. The Covey folks probably counted that a success.

Robert Redford

Robert Redford. Image courtesy Sundance Resort.

Wednesday afternoon they shut down the workshops and such.  They admonished us to go enjoy the wonders of the local area as we pondered our reason for being — our “personal mission statement.” The resort at the base of Mount Timpanogos is used for skiing in the winter and mostly hiking in the summer. Robert Redford says best what he hopes the place is really about:

“This place in the mountains, amid nature’s casualness toward death and birth, is the perfect host for the inspiration of ideas: harsh at times, life threatening in its winters of destruction, but tender in attention to the details of every petal of every wildflower resurrected in the spring. Nature and creativity obey the same laws, to the same end: life.”

Being into bicycling at the time I rented a mountain bike to ride around on the mountain trails. All my bicycle experience was on the roads so this would be something different. Thirty minutes later I was turning the bike in at the rental counter. I was neither having fun nor contemplating anything more important than basic survival. Turned out the total concentration needed to keep on the trail, avoid obstacles and the tumbling down of steep inclines required so much attention I couldn’t appreciate where I was. So I went for a hike toward the mountain summit instead. Into the woods alone I went.

After the distractions of bicycling, it was a joy to be able to walk quietly along a trail and just look at things and feel the silence and a summer breeze through the leaves. At some point I decided to take a break and rest, this being an uphill effort. So I left the trail and walked a ways in the woods to a tiny clearing. There was no place to sit, and I’m not much for the ground so I just stood there a few minutes and took it all in. I looked down and there was a stone at my feet. There was nothing extraordinary about it, smaller than a baseball but larger than a pebble. Out of boredom, I suppose, I started to give it a good kick – launch it flying off through the trees. However, as soon as my foot moved, I was stopped by something stunningly powerful. I suddenly felt like somehow the very cosmos was rebuking me. Strange thoughts came into my mind. “How can you come into a place like this and just start kicking things around? That rock may have been in that spot for a thousand years, and on this day you’re so important you can displace it with a thoughtless kick?” These ideas, the human arrogance of it, overwhelmed me. I felt as if I’d gone into someone’s home and started throwing furniture out the window because it didn’t suit my mood. To escape this unsettling and shaming sense of cosmic rebuke, I left the stone where it was and went back to the trail and kept climbing toward the summit. But that stone was still with me. Part of it was still on the ground back there, but another part of it had entered my consciousness and wasn’t leaving.

As I hiked upward I thought of the meaning of the mountain’s name, Timpanogos. It comes from the Ute language meaning rock water mouth or rock canyon. When I came across a stream, I did something I never typically do – took my shoes off and put my feet in the water. The water was so shockingly cold on that warm August day I first felt like the water had burned me. This water flows from glacial formations hidden up in the mountains, and I guess it’s the experience beer advertisers on television are trying to evoke in the viewer’s mind. Mostly what I saw were all the rocks in the stream. Lots of rocks. Rocks everywhere.

Stream at Timpanogos

Stream fed by melting underground glacier at Mount Timpanogos, Utah. Rocks everywhere.

I came down off the mountain having reached neither a summit nor a full understanding of my rock experience. The rock and its message came down with me though. Surely I could have dismissed it as just a weird, random thought out in the woods alone. It was too strong an experience to dismiss however. It wasn’t like I’d found the meaning of life, but I’d been told something important. It cautioned that we humans share in a universe we know very little about. It suggested our ignorance can lead to arrogance. Such arrogance can make us careless of the planet upon which we live. There can be times we bring such arrogance into our human affairs; we do unto others as we like, rarely thinking what they would like. Other people should not be mere rocks we kick around.

Finally, I thought, in most of our affairs it may simply be a good rule to “leave things be,” as I had left that rock be in the woods. As I reviewed the “personal mission statement” I had been crafting for the Covey overlords of the week, it was full of doings – things that should be actively done in life. It seemed a fitting way to end it with this new and somewhat enigmatic wisdom: Leave things be. It gave the whole thing a needed balance.

By way of a disclaimer, I will say I know we cannot leave all things be. If you stop going to work or leave the money in your checking account instead of paying the mortgages, there will be consequences – the people affected by your inaction will probably not leave things be. There are times when we do have to act, when it’s neither possible nor right to just leave things be. That’s where I believe we find wisdom.

For me, a lot of wisdom is the discerning between action and leaving be in life. I think we can leave things be a lot more than we think we can. This can make for a much more peaceful existence. Thoreau says in Walden, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” I’ve always seen that in the material sense of “things,” but it’s probably also true of everything in life. Pandora’s box would have been better left unopened. Let sleeping dogs lie. Physicians take an oath to “First, do no harm.” We have a long human history suggesting we leave things be.

Mount Timpanogos in the distance.

Mount Timpanogos in the distance.

Sometimes we have to go into the woods alone to really learn such things. If you do go into the woods, do your best to be prepared. The unexpected sometimes awaits.

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Responses

  1. An amazing and beautiful story! How appropriate for Epiphany. I believe you had an encounter with Divine Presence. Thank you for forwarding the message through this essay.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. I’ve always thought the professional development folks were dappling in high-priced snake oil, but inspiration, like gold, is where you find it.

  3. Yes! Have you read 12×12? William Powers talks about this with a great deal of insight. I’ve left a lot of things, so of course I appreciate the message. And it’s a well written piece.


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