Wisdom of the Chipmunk

What can we do? Listen to the chipmunk.

The negative news just keeps coming. How does one deal with it all and make a positive contribution at the same time? I found my answer during a 10 day solo backpack in the Sierra Nevada when I encountered a chipmunk taking on the switchbacks up Colby Pass.

My pack was pulling me into the center of the earth, my legs were burning, and every time I looked up, the pass seemed to be crawling away. The whole ordeal was killing me. So I stopped, threw my pack down, and collapsed on the incline. The weather was threatening, so I knew I had to keep moving, but I couldn’t.

Then I saw the chipmunk. He was darting up the switchback ahead of me. Although at first glance he seemed to be scurrying along in fits and starts, he always stopped when the switchback turned. Right at the corner he paused, occupying himself with cleaning his little paws and looking around at the scenery. Then he was off again until he reached the next switchback corner. This went on until my little friend disappeared into the salt and pepper granite background.

That’s when it dawned on me. I could do that – set my goal to reach a certain point, then stop. I could do ten steps. That’s it then, ten. So I put my pack back on, got my breath back into my body, stood up straight, and did my ten steps. Then I stopped. My breath was still manageable, but I stayed put until I felt ready. Then I hiked another ten steps. I stopped at ten steps whether or not I felt like I needed to stop. I avoided looking up slope to see if the pass was closer. I thought about the chipmunk.


Each time I stopped, it was like a little celebration. Euphoria was bubbling up through my body. The pain became manageable. Tapping into small, incremental amounts of will power was incredibly powerful. I set an attainable goal, met it, and rejoiced in the achievement. Sure, my vision of reaching the top of the pass was somewhere in the background, but that was no longer my goal. If it had been, I would have remained overwhelmed. I couldn’t have mustered the strength to carry on.

I brought that lesson home, what I learned from my chipmunk friend – focus on the attainable goal, and the vision will take care of itself. I learned that when I try and avail myself to excessive amounts of will power, over a long period of time, I’ll likely suffer diminishing levels of motivation, increased goal failure, and will ultimately, burn out.

There are so many things that we, as individuals, can not change. The ecological/social crisis we face has been overwhelming for anyone who has a shred of empathy in their heart. It makes me sad. It makes me want to run away.

And I must take to heart what I learned on those switchbacks.

Focus on the attainable goal, and the vision will take care of itself. I can put solar on my roof. I can establish an environmental leadership academy that will help the current, kick ass generation continue their inspiring fight to make the world a better place. I can inspire a small group of people every year to think logically and learn enough about themselves and Nature to treat the disease (rather than the symptoms) that has brought us to this precipice. Those are the things that allow me to get through the day. To sleep at night.

Each of us needs to find an attainable goal so the vision will take care of itself.

I did get to the top of Colby Pass. It was the only way I could start hiking down the other side.



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