Thursday, November 20, 2014

Is skiing meaningless?

In which I drive 200 miles and pay $126 to ski down a hill one time

At the end of last winter, I couldn't believe that I had lived in Colorado of all places and had never actually taken advantage of the opportunity to ski a single time. It has been years since I skied, because the winter before last, I was in Haiti, the winter before that, I was in Betel, and the winter before that, I don't remember whether I skied or not.

Some early cold and snow fell this week, and it occurred to me that I was free on Saturday, so I determined to go skiing. I went by a local ski rental place Thursday, where they fitted me for skis and I paid for the rental and bought goggles ($64). Then on Friday evening after work, I picked up my skis and packed a backpack for going up to the mountains early in the morning.

Saturday morning the forecast was calling for snow, and I briefly reconsidered whether I would go, but I decided to try it. After all, if the roads got really bad before I got there, I could always just turn around.

However, it wasn't just the snow that was causing me to pause in my decision to go. The snow perhaps provided an excuse, but my dilemma stemmed from a much deeper philosophical question:

Is skiing meaningless? 

What is the point, the use, the value, or the profit in skiing? What good can it possibly do me? How am I the better for having skied? Why should I ski? And by extension, what does that say about other things that I do with my time in the recreation category? Are those things meaningless, too?

So as I drove down the road toward the ski place, having rented my skis and decided to head in that direction, I was not at all sure if I would not come to the conclusion of my debate and take a random exit to turn around and go home, snow or no snow, already-paid rental and all.

I felt there were a number of possible conclusions on the table.

  • Skiing is meaningless, and therefore I will not do it; I will turn around and go home and turn my back on skiing forever.
  • Skiing is meaningless, but I will do it anyway because of a reason. For example:
    • I don't care if I do things that are meaningless, or, 
    • It's fun--and I am choosing to exempt "FUN meaningless things" from the category of what I eliminate from my life
  • Skiing in and of itself is meaningless, but me deciding to go skiing today can have a higher purpose, like running into an improbable strategic personal connection that wouldn't have happened otherwise. 
  • Skiing has a meaning and a purpose that I haven't figured out yet, but when I discover it, I will be able to joyfully go skiing without hesitation.
  • Asking whether something like skiing is meaningless is the wrong question; it is a false and artificial mode of thinking to divide things into categories of "meaningful" and "meaningless" 

As I processed the careful consideration of these options, my thoughts progressed through the following things.

Skiing used to be one of the highest levels of exhilaration I could experience. I remember the first time I ever went skiing, around the age of 10. Before that point, the greatest experience of my life had been galloping on a horse. Skiing so far surpassed and eclipsed the enjoyment of galloping that I remained for about two weeks after our ski trip with my head in the clouds, dreaming and reliving the experience on the slopes. Subsequent ski trips proved to be no disappointment. The dizzying acceleration of speed, the adrenaline rush of pushing my skills to the limit, the sharp wind streaming the tears out of my eyes, the smooth swoosh of curving back and forth, and the constant desire to go ever faster, never failed to produce in me a satisfying and enduring thrill.

However, since the last time I went skiing, I have experienced an even greater thrill, and just like skiing eclipsed galloping, this new experience has eclipsed skiing, yet in so much higher a proportion as to be almost incomparable. If we were to place things along a continuum, galloping would be a 1, skiing would be roughly a 10, and this new discovery would rank 1000 or 10,000, it so far surpasses all other things. This has become the standard by which I judge all the experiences in my life. This one thing, crossed off my bucket list, makes crossing anything else off unnecessary. I could travel, make discoveries, learn things, acquire possessions, and have experiences throughout the entire earth and never improve upon this. I do not even need to have a bucket list, for I am not seeking anything, I have found it. I have already seen the Thing beside which all other things pale in comparison. I have found the Definition for which all other thrills are merely symbols and shadows.

I am talking about loving Jesus and being loved by Him, walking in the Spirit, dwelling in Christ, Him dwelling in me, and working according to His purpose. I saw this very clearly while I was in Haiti, and I said to myself then, "I have found a thing to live for which is so great, so glorious, so satisfying, and so right that I am never going to live for anything else." In the ensuing chaos and spiritual attack that came from the whole Haiti situation, the ministry activities themselves were stripped away from me, and the attack left me temporarily reeling and forgetful of my declaration--but my grasp on Christ himself was never loosened, and the memory of that statement came back to me as I held my little philosophical discussion with myself in the car. The contrast between the joy of skiing and the joy of being in Christ showed itself with startling clarity There is no comparison! Skiing, which formerly held out the promise of such tantalizing and incredible happiness, now revealed itself to be fundamentally empty. Skiing? I could take it or leave it. It didn't matter, though, because I had something so much better.

Another thing that seemed relevant to my discussion was an idea that I had just recently been introduced to by reading Francis Schaeffer's masterpiece of a work, How Shall We Then Live? In it, he traces, among other things, the development in Western thought of the concept of a "lower story" and an "upper story," in which we artificially divide the secular from the spiritual, or the rational from the supernatural, in our way of thinking. This is actually a relatively new concept of thought, and it is not rooted in a Christian worldview, but rather in a secular humanist worldview. I discovered, to a shocking extent, how much my own thinking has bought into a concept that is not Biblical, and I was fascinated to be informed of the main players in developing this system of thought, until by now it is diffused throughout our thought patterns so thoroughly that we don't even recognize its existence, much less that it is incorrect. I unequivocally reject the idea of dividing my thinking into an "upper story" and a "lower story," but the extent to which I have actually rooted out these patterns is yet to be determined. It is an area that bears further thinking and study.

Finally, in my debate with myself whether skiing was meaningless, I thought of Solomon's oft-repeated phrase, "vanity and vexation of spirit" in the book of Ecclesiastes, so I pulled it up on my phone and listened to the entire book of Ecclesiastes on the way up the mountain. It was almost as if I could suddenly identify with what Solomon meant when he said "vanity and vexation of spirit," whereas I had never really understood that feeling the least bit before. And what is more, Solomon pointed out that there were many more categories than the one I was turning over that turned out to be "vanity." I was merely looking at the particular idea of skiing, and, by extension, the pursuit of recreation in general, but Solomon explored a lot more categories of things, which all turned out to be vanity. Solomon was seeking for what would bring true, lasting, enduring, genuine satisfaction, and he did not find any of these in all of his pursuits until he came to the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commands, for this is the whole duty of man. There, and only there, lies meaning and purpose. Everywhere else, it is all vanity and vexation of spirit. In other words, all these pursuits that were supposed to deliver on their promise of fulfillment all turn out to be frustratingly empty and devoid of meaning and value.

So where does that leave us with regard to skiing? How does skiing fit in to fearing God and keeping His commands? Is it an incorrect mode of thinking to put skiing in the "lower story" and then reject it as meaningless? Is skiing simply a legitimate way of rejoicing in the reward of my labor?

By the time I got to the ski place, I had not reached a firm conclusion that it would be wrong to ski, so I did the thing that I had come up there to do: I bought a lift ticket ($51). Then I went into the lodge, where I rented a locker ($7) where I could store my backpack and shoes, because my car was parked in the remote lot that I could only reach by shuttle, so it didn't make sense to store it in the car and go back and forth if I wanted any of my stuff. I had also bought a water bottle ($2) and a coffee ($2) during my drive up, bringing my total of expenses to $126 (if you don't count gas, which would have been another $15-20 round trip).

My gear safely stowed, I awkwardly clumped down the stairs from the lodge to the rack where I had left my skis. This is where I made a blunder. My coat malfunctioned due to user error. I have two zippers on my coat, one for the inner liner and one for the outer shell. I mistakenly zipped one side of the inner liner with the other side of the outer shell. I actually have no idea how it worked to even begin to zip it up, but I got it zipped about two inches up, and then I was stuck. I couldn't zip up or down from there. I played with it for a few minutes and finally gave up with a shrug of the shoulders. "Oh well," I thought. "I guess I'll just have to ski with my coat unzipped."

It was then that I realized a disappointing thing: My strength was already spent.

Just the effort of carrying my skis, boots, and backpack to walk from the car to the shuttle and the shuttle to the ticket window, and then stowing my gear, putting on my ski boots, clumping down the stairs, and fighting with my zipper, I had used up my energy. It was that same spent feeling that I used to get when I was sick in Haiti in April of 2013, when I couldn't even do so much as lift a mop. I have recovered a great deal of health since then, so that I can do a lot more before I come to the end of my strength, but the fact of this weakness has become an all-too-familiar experience. And here it was again.

Determined and undaunted, with my mostly-unzipped coat, I went to stand in line for the lift. It was quite a long line because there was only one open lift, but I finally got on and had a lovely, relaxing ride up to the top.

At the top, I still hadn't recovered my strength despite the long rest sitting on the lift. I chose the green dot slope (the easiest level) and began my descent, skiing very slowly and carefully. I found that while I had the memory of the technique for how to ski, what was totally and completely missing was the excitement, the adrenaline rush, and the delicious feeling of leaping up on the inside that had always before come with skiing. I was so focused on getting down to the bottom safely, and I was skiing so cautiously, I didn't get the least little rush.

Three times on the way down, I had to come to a complete stop and sit down in the snow to rest. I pulled out my phone, took a couple of pictures, and sent a couple of texts. When my hand started to get cold, I stood up with a sigh and resumed my careful, slow, focused descent. I felt like an old, old woman. Actually, I had seen quite an elderly woman in the lodge, dressed in her ski gear and glowing with energy, and I thought she was probably vastly stronger than me.

When I got to the bottom, I briefly considered the question of whether I would stand back in line to go up to the top again. "Nope! I'm done," I realized. So I clumped back up the stairs to the lodge, removed my items from the locker, got onto the shuttle, went back to my car, and drove home.

I was even sore the next day from my one pathetic little run down the green dot slope. This was sad indeed.

What is not settled is the answer to the fundamental question.

How does a Christian think properly about something like skiing?

I have more thinking to do on this, but I would love to hear your input.

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