“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” The wisdom—and wit—of Thomas Merton.
We all climb that ladder. There is probably something wrong with you if you don’t. And there are lots of ladders. Young people sometimes denounce the ladders they see their parents and the generation above them mounting. But there’s nothing salvific about exchanging a bourgeois ladder for a bohemian ladder, aiming to be the next Bono instead of the next Buffet. There are ladders that scale the heights of movies and music and dance and painting. Ladders to the top of non-profits and churches and charities.
Everybody’s on some ladder.
The mystery and wonder of God’s salvation is, it only kicks in once you get a few rungs up your personal favorite and realize that it’s leaning against the wrong wall. You have to fail. Your own personal improvement project has to crap out. That’s the only moment in which a human being is ready and willing to receive grace. (There are no exceptions to this rule. Apparent exceptions are usually people with high control needs, too fearful to climb and fall.)
Unless you bury your talent and withdraw from life, there’s no way to avoid the ladder climbing. I imagine God watching us, the way all parents watch their children, knowing we must set out to find our way, knowing we must take wrong turns and ascend wrong ladders leaning against wrong walls, and waiting for us to fall—so that God can catch us in those Everlasting Arms.
The only caveat in Merton’s observation are those four words, “spend their whole lives.” At some point you’re supposed to wake up to the wrongness of the ladder and the wall. At some point we take a tumble, and God reaches out to catch us, to enfold us in mercy—and for the first thirty or forty years we push away and say, “No thank you. I don’t need any help. I can do this—I really can. Watch me.” And we go back at those rungs. But you don’t want to spend your whole life doing that.
Pray for the grace, when the time comes, to be caught by those Everlasting Arms, and not to push away.