As a child, I used to think the trees outside my house grew as high as they did because they were trying to touch the sky. I remember having this in mind one day when I wandered from my backyard and skipped over to a field that lay tucked away from view. Fresh, undisturbed grasses tickled my bare little feet while warm breezes wafted past me like a mother’s whisper as I entered into this private world of mine.
I knew exactly what I came to do. Looming over me was the tallest tree in the field—tower of my ambition, emblem of my conquest. Chiseled against the sunlit horizon, its dark silhouette cast over me a menacing shadow, but my mind remained set.
I was going to touch the sky.
So I began to climb, grabbing limb after limb. Once at the top I set my eyes triumphantly upon the skies, gazing at the drifting clouds. I inched forward a bit, trying to keep them in my gaze as they sailed away, and then…
My foot slipped. At once, the peaceful and promising world flipped over and crashed down around me as I fell from the height of the tree. My shoulder hit the unforgiving ground with a forceful thud, and waves of pain began rushing through my body like angry waters from an opened floodgate. I started crying, searching helplessly amid the vast skies above, but the clouds moved on, mocking me as I lay in the grass—alone.
Since that day I’ve become quite familiar with falling. With every exam, paper or personal struggle that conquers me, I am thrust brutally back to the ground from which I came. To be human is to reach, to strive for what is beyond our grasp—and yet, to climb is to fall. Our tragedy is that we can look beyond the heart, but can do only within the heart.
I didn’t know it then, but I had fallen long before I slipped off that tree. Climbing was my fall. My ambition had burned with the desire to touch the sky and transcend the mortal earth beneath me. Creation stood before me and I saw that it was good. And what was good would’ve been better if it were mine.
Since that day, I’ve been falling up. I fall up past the ceiling, up over the mountains, up among the stars. On the way, I fall past those precious to me—my friends, teachers and family. One by one they pass me by—struggles, values…memories altogether.
I want to stay but I know I must go. How will I touch the sky if I stay down below?
As a Duke student, I’m often guilty of what I call the Eden Complex. In a world where people are oppressed relentlessly for their differences, I’m tempted to see this campus as a sanctuary where such differences render us unique rather than flawed.
In this Garden, we are provided with the Fruit of Knowledge, a gift granting discernment between Good and Evil and the resources to promote the former. I saw that the Fruit was good. I ate, and I climbed up for more.
Thirsting insatiably for knowledge and prestige, I have let go of the bonds that held me down on this earth—the intimacy of my relationships and even my compassion for others—and I’ve fallen up. Plummeting up to the stars, beckoned like a moth to the illusory sparkles of status and pride, I realize too late that I’m alone. I look back down with longing, only to see the rest of the world moving on, like clouds drifting into the distance.
Duke is not always Eden. Often, it is Naylor’s Linden Hills, a place where the higher a person ascends in worldly standing the deeper he or she descends into the Circles of one’s internal Hell. Too often I see Duke students caught within an obsessive pursuit of the perfect GPA, social life and post-undergraduate career. Despite our quest to alleviate the problems of this world, so we profess, we remain oblivious to structural inequalities that, for many of us, have contributed invisibly to the opportunities we have now. We feed the narcissism of our minor differences by neglecting their existence.
In this society, to climb is to step on others. Benefiting from a winner-take-all system means that for every stride I take up, someone next to me stumbles down—yet still I’ve climbed alone. That’s why we’ve fallen—we want the fruit only for ourselves.
No longer do I want to see myself standing with content on a tree that was planted for me. I want to challenge all of us at Duke to come down from our high places—not to fall, but to come down willingly. Let’s use the gifts we’ve been given to plant more seeds in a barren earth. Let’s strive for more than just acing classes or earning a comfortable living. Instead let’s invest our education into the collective advancement of all, not few.
But first we must quell our fear of vulnerability. Humility and honesty convey strength not weakness. Only by meeting on equal ground can we trust each other as humans and share the narratives we carry. Thus we begin our climb together.
Perhaps together we’ll discover another way to touch the sky—without having to leave the ground.
Chris Lee is a Trinity junior. This is his first column of the semester.