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Mountain humility

Jackie Mirandola Mullen | Sunday, April 19, 2009

Mountains are big. Some are admittedly smaller than others, but by definition, they’re big. Wikipedia’s entry for mountain says it is a landmass “that stretches above the surrounding land in a limited area usually in the form of a peak,” but also that there is no universal definition (I’m reminded of when westerners scoff at the once-mighty and now quiet Appalachians). However you define them, though, they are awe-provoking, humbling and impressive.

It doesn’t come as a great surprise, then, that mountain people tend to be particularly religious. From the overwhelmingly Catholic Alps to the Buddhist mountains of Tibet to the Incans of the Andes to the “hillbillies” of the Appalachians, mountain communities tend to be very close-knit with religion as a central part of communal life.

The German word for religious is “gläubig” [gloy-big]. Gläubig means literally “believing,” and it comes from the word “glauben,” to believe. I think the German word expresses the believing-ness of the people in mountains communities better than the English word “religious.” It doesn’t assume that spirituality is connected to any particular religion or organized faith, but rather expresses the characteristic as having faith – believing – in an undefined something.

When the earth around you is untamable, stacked in massive poles, whole rocks and snow could come crumbling down at any slight wind or temperature change, you learn pretty quickly not to overestimate yourself. We can put trails, ski slopes, even horses or other animals on them, we can cut down their trees and try to redirect their streams, but it’s all only to a certain point. Hence the phrase, “trying to move mountains” to express attempting a nearly futile task.

A simple but profound reminder of my own limits occurs every time I go on a long hike here in Innsbruck. At home, if I walk too far, I can take a bus home, I can call home for a ride or I can wait and rest a while before heading back. But if you walk up into the mountains, up onto a remote slope away from highways and roads and miles from home, you’d better have it in you to walk back down, and do it before it gets cold and dark. Somehow that always gets me – that I did it, I’m on the top of a mountain, but I have no way of returning home other than picking up my tired feet and getting back to work. Otherwise, I’m stranded alone in the cold for the night.

We could all learn a lot from the mountains. About the humility of recognizing that something is bigger than you are, something that is unfathomably beautiful and dumbfounding and dangerous all in one. In America, we are taught to work hard and continue plugging away to make anything possible. Our optimism and work ethic are some of our greatest and strongest qualities, but they can also lead to an arrogant notion that we really are the best, the biggest, the brightest and that the entire world is at our disposal.

It’s time we stepped back and listened to the mountains and the histories of mountains’ people and accepted our own limits in the natural world. Most resources aren’t renewable, most soil gets worn out and the air and ocean can’t absorb our massive amounts of waste forever. When we live too far from the believing-ness that the challenges and beauties of this world inspire, we can easily forget to respect the life in the world around us and instead slowly kill it with our unrestrainable ambition. You don’t have to be a mountain person yourself to believe there is something bigger and uncultivatable out there whose beauty and worth is greater than us; we can all receive a humbling from these giants.

Jackie Mirandola Mullen is a junior History and German major. She wishes everyone a happy Earth Week. She can be reached at jmirando@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.