You can’t always see the albatross.
The story of the albatross was first told by Taylor Coleridge in 1797 in a poem entitled, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The mariner and his crew set off on adventure but were caught in a deadly ice storm. An albatross, a giant sea bird with an enormous wingspan appeared from the heart of the storm and saved the ship. At first the crew celebrated this creature of luck and fortune, but later after deciding it was leading them astray, the ill-fated mariner shot and killed the bird. He was hailed as a hero, but only until the adventurers suffered another misfortune. In response to their change in luck the crew blamed the mariner for killing the portentous great bird and forced him to carry its weight upon his neck as a sign of guilt and remorse. At first an omen of hope, and later a guilty burdensome weight the mariner was doomed to carry the albatross forever.
I recently had the opportunity to hear a great talk by a great man. Tom Hornbein is a famous mountaineer and was the first ascender of the West Ridge of Mount Everest in 1963. Long before he became a famous climber he was a boy who enjoyed sneaking out an upstairs window of his parents’ house. He lightly and quickly shimmied up a well-placed tree and easily jumped across space to the uppermost apex of the house. He sat astride the top of his family world and watched the stars overhead.
Tom has told his adventurous tale of summiting Everest countless times over the past 53 years. The story remains the same, but Tom is constantly changing. His life, focus, priorities and perspective have altered considerably over the decades because stories are not static just as life is not static. Because great stories evolve, Tom has given us not just one story, but many different stories.
Fulfillment of the dream of summiting the great mountain was and always will be a great source of pride and joy for Tom. It will always remain the base of his story. But the expectations generated by that accomplishment have created a weight that Tom has carried for the past five decades. A dream accomplished can sometimes turn out to be a burden as well as a blessing.
Tom, along with his climbing partner and the support of their extensive team had the good luck, training, perseverance and focus to climb Mt. Everest. They carried the joy of accomplishment, but also the burden of expectation.
Tom sat not just on the roof of his family’s home. He sat on the planet’s roof. On our roof.
And then he came down and rejoined humanity on the ground.
The climb was hard, arduous, dangerous and death defying. The climb back down to earth was all those things and more. The achieved dream, the grand accomplishment, followed him down from the summit. The pivotal moment of accomplishment defined Tom. It has been a positive definition, yet still limiting in some ways.
Tom is now 85. Physically he is not the same man who scaled the top of the world. He has aged as we all must. He wears his defining past as an invisible albatross.
We all have burdens to carry. We all have our own personal albatrosses. Physical and emotional burdens. Losses of abilities and changing definitions of self. Losses of friends and loved ones, and through their loss the diminishment of the memory of our own younger selves.
Tom is a hero. He climbed to the top of the world and he is a legend among mountaineers.
But he is also a hero because he lets us see his albatross and he stands proudly beneath its weight. I hope to let him set an example for me.
We carry burdens that are not always visible.
You can’t always see the albatross.