The Final Rung

It seemed clear to me that I should always be progressing. I’m a product of a culture obsessed with assigning value to everything: prices, wages, grades, success – hell, even friends and, in some ways, happiness. These values – easily set in a hierarchy, superimposable onto a ladder – just made sense. I liked the feeling of giving myself to relentlessly ascending in pursuit of the final rung. The more quantifiable the rungs, the easier it was to “get better.”

But how do you define “better?” It took some time before I considered this question. So focused on improvement, I never focused on what exactly I was improving. I didn’t realize that as soon as I had started the climb, I had relinquished command of both the speed and the direction of my ascent. Each step took me closer to “fulfillment” – a word that I allowed others to define for me. 

I stepped off this ladder for the first time when I studied in Bilbao this past summer. To me, Bilbao stood out as a place in sharp contrast with everywhere I had ever gone.

Bilbao was a world away from the hustle and bustle of Yale. It was a city that had experienced industrial decay marred by the loss of fishing and industry jobs. Alongside this economic struggle, an identity struggle ensued: without major companies, the pride of the city, what was Bilbao’s significance? It was with the establishment of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997 that the city’s fortunes began to turn around. Artists, musicians, chefs, and tourists came to see what Bilbao had to offer. The city transformed through tourism and art, and yet, its effects didn’t end with its economy – many of the people themselves acquired a new mindset. 

Marga, my host mother, embodied this new mindset. Life with Marga was characterized by a daily challenge to the ladder I had come to adopt. She, a loving mother and grandmother, a casual painter and linguist, a fantastic cook, and an avid reader, demonstrated a mastery of all things humanistic. But above all, people were the most important to her. Family was of immense importance, and she did not limit her family to she was related to by blood. 

Sundays were set aside as time to maintain the connections with these individuals. I asked about this as we sat in her living room practicing English and Spanish with one another, her grandchildren playing in the background. She boiled down her own philosophy to a sentence. Like a plant, she believed, relationships must be maintained, and be allowed to grow and develop. Sometimes, she stated, there are things you can’t control, but instead of doubt, you must take comfort in the chaos and find peace in the orchestration of life’s symphony. 

This ideology demonstrated what my host mom embodied: an acceptance of everything around her, an understanding of her role in the world, and an appreciation for the art that is life itself. In other words, the pursuit of peace.

Many other residents of Bilbao that I met shared a similar mentality. I sensed a peace that undergirded the actions of the people with whom I spoke. This tranquility should not be confused with apathy. Bilbao residents had passions, motivations, and inspirations that defined their actions. But at the same time, there was no rush, no haste, and no mandate; they were replaced with a taste of flexibility and a dash of spontaneity. 

This world, juxtaposed to mine, highlighted my underlying problem – my aversion to risk, manifested in my propensity to climb the ladder. I realized that in my own life, I was accustomed to deferring tough questions in favor of a set course. Bilbao forced me to come to terms with this fact of myself. Maybe comfort could be found in the disorder; maybe, peace could be found within life’s chaos. Maybe it was okay to just chill.

I had started the climb to counteract chaos in my own life. Seeing an alternative to the climb, I realized that the true challenge isn’t in going up from one rung to the next, but in understanding what makes us move. What I was looking for, fundamentally, was the kind of peace that Bilbao residents found inherently. It was the peace of contentment derived not so much from reaching the top of the ladder as much as from taking a moment to breath. 

In the climb, I was so focused on the future, that far-off reality in which I would have all that I ever wanted. I had been convinced that I wasn’t worthy enough to attain that goal at the moment. Bilbao taught me that there is something to be gained in the present moment.  Bilbao taught me about acceptance, about appreciation, and about living in the present, and it was only in reflection, in reliving those moments, that I could learn. In reality, it was the process of reflecting on my time in Bilbao that taught me the importance of reflection itself, a lesson I am incredibly thankful for. ■