At 3:25 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen ended a 19-day free-climbing expedition, ascending El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park. Although others had climbed that mountain before, none had used only their hands and feet to pull their way up the 3,000 foot mountain — the height of three Empire State Buildings.
This month-old news event prompts an enduringly relevant question. Why did Caldwell and Jorgensen undertake this dangerous and arduous pilgrimage to the top of Dawn Wall?
In an exclusive New York Times interview, Caldwell explained, “For me, I love to dream big, and I love to find ways to be a bit of an explorer. These days it seems like everything is padded and comes with warning labels. This just lit a fire under me, and that’s a really exciting way to live. And this has driven me for a very long time.”
Jorgensen added, “I wanted to see what I was capable of and this was the biggest canvas and the most audacious project I could join and see to the finish.”
But more telling was this earlier quote from Caldwell, “I would love for this to open other people’s minds…. I think the larger audience’s conception is that we’re thrill-seekers, out there for an adrenaline rush. We really aren’t at all. It’s about spending our lives in these beautiful places and forming these incredible bonds with friends and family.”
Then Jorgensen offered his view on the “why” of their adventure: “I hope it inspires people to find their own Dawn Wall, if you will. I think everyone has their own secret Dawn Wall to complete one day, and maybe they can put this project in their own context.”
This old Jesuit is uncomfortable with heights, and mountain climbing remains a sport I admire, albeit from afar. But what Caldwell and Jorgensen symbolized for me was the courage and resilience it takes to live out the dream. To clarify what I mean by courage and resilience, contrast ambitions and dreams. Ambitions generally focus on accomplishment, success and career fulfillment. Dreams focus on inspiration, aspiration and soul-fulfillment.
Ambitions orient a woman or man toward specific, achievable goals like a career in law, or becoming a heart surgeon, or founding an economically successful business or earning a Ph.D. in order to teach at some prestigious university.
Dreams envision a change of heart, a conversion from winning to serving. Let’s take these same examples to illustrate what I mean by dreaming. The career in law becomes an opportunity to promote justice for the poor, the marginal and the voiceless. The heart surgeon dedicates herself to discovering new surgical techniques that will save lives while decreasing the cost of delicate surgery. The business person wants to found an enterprise that will create a community of co-ownership between employers and employees. The new Ph.D. wants to inspire his or her students to love learning, to know the difference between information and wisdom. In short, dreams — whether to climb a mountain or to labor in ways that help other people — lead to the virtue of magnanimity, the dedication to a project greater than oneself.
But ambition and dreams need not be opposed but complementary. D.H. Lawrence put it this way:
“All people dream, but not equally.
Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their mind,
wake in in the morning to find that it was vanity.
But the dreamers of the day are dangerous people,
For they dream their dreams with open eyes,
And make them come true.”
The ethical and spiritual heritage of Georgetown University resides in the kind of dreams we encourage one another to cherish. That same heritage challenges all to forge our dreams into projects that dig deeply into human needs and then to work hard and steadily to transform these needs into opportunities for the common good.Caldwell and Jorgensen remind us that the educated heart is finally the heart that responds to its own dreams as the invitation of God.
In that light, a month-old news feature morphs into an enduring moment of wisdom.
Fr. Howard Gray, S.J., is the assistant to the president at Georgetown University. As This Jesuit Sees It… appears every other Friday.