you’re a painter, roofer, or fire-fighter, you’re probably not on a ladder very
often.  From time to time, you use a step
stool to reach the top shelf of a tall cabinet or a step-ladder to change a
light bulb. A couple of times of year, you get out the extension ladder and
clean out the gutters; but, most of the time, the ladder stays in the garage
and you keep your feet on the ground.  

But, when it
comes to ladders of ambition and achievement, many of us are climbing all the
time.  There are always more rungs above
us.  Who can count the steps between mail
room clerk and CEO, graduate assistant and Distinguished Professor in an Endowed
Chair, second lieutenant and general officer, between apprentice, journeyman
and master?  I know it doesn’t have to be
this way, but for a lot of us it is: our dreams are of moving up: from the
windowless office on the first floor to the sunlit corner office on the top
floor.  Success for most of us means
going higher, moving to the top.  So
there’s always more climbing to do and always people just behind and beneath
us, climbing faster and faster, threatening to pass us up or knock us off the
rung we’re on. 

Some of us
become so obsessed with climbing the ladder that we lose track of other things
which actually matter more than the ladder: things like love, authenticity, and
integrity; like health, happiness, and compassion; like family, friends, and God,
for instance.  We can get into a frame of
heart and mind which convinces us that the ladder is what matters—and no room
on it anything other than our own ambitions. 
But, because we want to think of ourselves as good people, we tell
ourselves that we haven’t left those other thing and other people behind
permanently.  We make a kind of bargain
with our conscience: “Leave me alone for now, and I’ll get back to you
later.  The ladder now; the soft stuff,
the heart stuff, after we have more time, more money, and more security.”

something happens.  Someone close to us
gets sick or has an accident.  Our spouse
walks out.  One of our kids gets in
trouble, real trouble, the kind of trouble we can’t fix by writing a check or
hiring an outside helper. 

Or, to get
ahead, we cut corners, bend rules, and subtly stab coworkers in the back; then,
one day, for some reason, we catch our own eyes in the mirror and don’t like
the person looking back at us.

Or, depression
sets in, or we start feeling a tightness in our chest, or we can’t sleep. 

happens.  And the awareness crashes in on
us that we’ve been climbing a ladder not worth climbing.  Remember the truism offered by business guru Stephen
R. Covey: “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we
take just gets us to the wrong place faster.”

We discover
what William Butler Yeats described in his poem “The Circus Animals’

. . . Now
that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Maybe you know what it’s like for the ladder of your
dreams to go away and, then, to lie down, depleted and defeated, in the foul
rag and bone shop of the heart.  A time
like that can be a gift if we view it as invitation to clarify what truly
matters, to integrate faith and ambition in a way that faith is in charge, and
to renew our awareness that success without love isn’t success at all.