Unless you’re a painter, roofer or firefighter, you’re probably not on a ladder very often. 
From time to time, you use a stepstool to reach the top shelf of a tall cabinet or a stepladder to change a light bulb.

A couple of times of year, you get out the extension ladder and clean out the gutters.

Most of the time, the ladder stays in the garage and you keep your feet on the ground.

Yet, 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 mailroom clerk and CEO, graduate assistant and distinguished professor in an endowed chair, second lieutenant and general officer, or 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. There’s always more climbing to do.

There are 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: love, authenticity and integrity; health, happiness and compassion; family, friends and God.

We can get into a frame of heart and mind that convinces us the ladder is what matters, and that there is no room for anything other than our own ambitions.

We want to think of ourselves as good people, so we tell ourselves that we haven’t left those other things 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.”

Then 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 co-workers 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, we start feeling tightness in our chest or we can’t sleep. 

Something significant happens and the awareness crashes in on us that we’ve been climbing a ladder not worth climbing.

We 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.”

When this realization dawns, we discover what William Butler Yeats described in his poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion:”

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 an 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.

Guy Sayles is pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville, N.C. This column first appeared on his blog, From the Intersection.

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