Plum Puddings, Everest, and Serving Humanity

I left my mother crying at the railway station as she waved me goodbye. Feeling slightly guilty that I couldn’t wait to get away, I was leaving my home in Penang for the first time, to finish high school in a special college for students intending to study in Australia.

There were new and exciting things on the horizon – living away from home, making new friends, navigating a huge city, making choices about things I had barely thought about before. I was sixteen years old, I had been in an all-girls school my whole life, and many things were about to change.

Best of all, I was about to discover boys.

One boy in particular posed an interesting puzzle to me. For a start, he spent a great deal of time engaged in terribly exhausting outdoorsy type things like hiking, climbing and trekking in the jungles. They would all have been exhausting in any part of the world, but in Malaysia, where the days are incredibly hot, and at eighty-percent, the humidity is always around “I CANNOT believe it’s this humid!” – the jungles are all of the above, only much, much worse.

Adding to the less than pleasant weather for … well, doing anything at all… were the ever present threats of being bitten by highly poisonous snakes, eaten alive by malaria-bearing mozzies, or being gunned down by an armed bunch of communist insurgents. Most Malaysians (very sensibly) avoided the great outdoors when they could, and spent their leisure time eating out, preferring the threat food poisoning from less-than-sanitary food stalls, to the dangers of the jungles.

This young man was clearly decidedly different to any other I person I had ever met. We became firm friends, and although he never quite succeeded in helping me become more athletic than a plum pudding, we enjoyed exhaustive debate about everything from the merits of handwriting analysis to the meaning of life.

Heavy stuff for a seventeen year old about to step into her life.

Fast forward thirty four years, to just the other day, and we find ourselves sitting next to the river in South Perth. We’ve got several decades to catch up on and a very short time in which to do it. And …

He’s just climbed Everest. Yep, all the way to the Summit.

So here I was sitting next to this guy I went to high school with, except now he’s one of the few people in the world who have conquered Everest. A remarkable feat by any standard.

The thing is, I didn’t ask him all the usual questions – from the very obvious, “what did it feel like to do this incredible thing?” to the even more obvious, “are you completely insane, hundreds of people die doing this?” I didn’t say, “Why did you risk your life, what were you trying to prove?” Instead, I came up with:

“How does your climbing Everest serve humanity?”

Thankfully, my friend is a forgiving sort of person, but the irony of my holier-than-thou question was not lost on me. Unlike the vast majority of humanity, I live in a nice house, with indoor plumbing, in pretty suburb with roses and white picket fences, next to a beautiful river, in a gorgeous, sun-drenched city, in an affluent peaceful nation, and none of my worries involved things like finding clean water, educating my children, dodging bullets and avoiding land mines. Just what was I doing to serve humanity?

But I persisted. I had no right, it felt dismissive of an achievement that I couldn’t hope to understand, but I couldn’t help it. I had to know. Why does someone as intelligent, driven and athletic put so much of his energy and creativity into climbing Very High Things? What does it serve? If I had those kinds of powers over my body, the things I would do…

My friend seemed unfazed by my question.

“Why not use the limitless energy and resources you have and build schools or wells or something …?” I charged on, in full judgement mode. 

“That’s next on the agenda,” he said, with his usual infectious chuckle.

Thankfully, good sense took over and I didn’t press him. My friend climbs Very High Things and runs Very Long Distances, and my need to understand why took a back seat to the sudden realisation that perhaps service is not the simple concept I thought it was.

“It was never about reaching the summit of Everest,” he said. “It was just about seeing how far I could go.”
Most of us don’t give ourselves that choice. We find out ‘how far’ just by responding to the Everest of our daily lives. For me, the challenges of navigating relationships, balancing work with serving my loved ones and meeting their needs … hell, finding time and energy to go for a walk or do the dishes is, at times, overwhelming. To go seek out death-defying challenges seems indulgent.

I’ve never been physically strong, and never understood what drives an athlete. Truth be told, I’ve viewed the heroism attributed to them with suspicion. Isn’t the real hero the mother who is endlessly, thanklessly caring for her disabled child, or the young man with a mental illness who chooses to keep going, every day, when it’s easier not to? But perhaps there is more to this story. My energetic friend has got me thinking a lot more and more about the concept of service, and how narrow and self-righteous my views might be.

This is a big deal for someone who often jokes that I’d love to have minions … or failing that, at least a cook, a driver and a personal masseur.

Does it really matter then, if, like my friend, we choose to push the boundaries within, or if those boundaries get forced to expand, because life chucks a bunch of crap at us?

Perhaps not. The end result is probably the same. Either way, we learn a great deal more about what makes us tick, and our mental, emotional and spiritual fibre is strengthened.

And then we serve others better, because we know ourselves better. Whether we do it through running, climbing or flying … or washing, carrying, crying and aching, we’re still expanding our courage, patience and creativity. And when it gets too hard and we run out of the above, we push ourselves to find just a little bit more.

I may never be more athletic than a plum pudding. Doesn’t matter 🙂


Comments 23

  1. Hi Malini – It’s funny you should write about this topic, because your conclusion was the topic of a talk at a seminar I attended last week. So when Hillary (or was it someone else?) answered the question “Why did you climb Mt Everest” with “Because it’s there”, he was spot on. It is the challenges we set ourselves, and the journey toward achieving (or not) those challenges that makes us who we are, shows us a strength we didn’t know we had, and puts other things into perspective. We are able to learn from the experience, be better people, and achieve more (hopefully with some service involved). And as you said, what we consider a challenge is dependent on who and where we are right now, not a competition with others. Everybody’s challenge will be different. For some people, serving others may be a challenge…
    Thank you for a great post. I did wonder where you were going with the self-righteous questioning bit… lucky for you that your friend was so forgiving! He sounds like an enlightened fellow to be able to take it with good humour and explain the deeper meaning. 🙂 x

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      Thanks for the considered response, Emily. My friend read my post (I made sure he was ok with it first!) and this is what he said, “Our education taught us little about serving humanity or even about ourselves. Most of us bump from job to job trying to find the elusive perfect job. I have come to the conclusion that the only thing that is perfect is within each of us. If we know ourselves, truly know ourselves, then we will see a glimpse of God standing within us … Then, all our work will be perfect in service. When we lose ourselves…when we are able to be imbued with that ‘nothingness’, we serve humanity best. For me, climbing Everest deepened that understanding of nothingness substantially.”

      I guess we all have our Everests.

      So glad you stopped by, thanks for taking the time x

  2. All I can say to this Marlini, at this hour of the day,I will have to leave all the climbing of mountains till i have finished my serving humanity. So leaving climbing Everest till later is going to be tricky at 65 years of age I just may have left that a bit too late. Having said that sometimes the pain of getting up in the morning feels a bit like I have just climbed Mt Everest. Everest to everyone is a little different.Thank you for your blog it is interesting and thought provocing.

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      Hello Bobbie dear,
      I think you hit the nail on the head with that one, “Everest to everyone is a little different.” Understanding why he did it has been a big lesson in acceptance of all expressions of service and human endeavour for me. Hopefully, I’m a teeny bit of a better person for it now!

      (your service to humanity is just wonderful, the world needs lots more people like you!)
      Thank you for taking the time to stop by.

  3. Pursuing a sport at a high level does seem indulgent – even when you’re the person doing it. I know Chrissie Wellington (hawaii ironman winner x 3) really struggled with this but as her coach said to her – by being the best athlete you can be, this gives you a platform to support those causes that you are passionate about 🙂

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      Hello Kelly
      You know I thought of you so much as I was writing this, as you are so dear to my heart and I respect you SO very much, but you do exist in ‘that’ world that I don’t understand and never have. And I really didn’t want you to hate me for the horrible questions I was asking my friend!! Reading your comment was quite a relief. And I think I’ve come a whole lot closer to understanding now.

      Thank you xx

  4. Hi Malini- my first ever post anywhere – you did it to me again. LOL
    I do wonder about the adulation given to extreme sporting achievements or at least those who achieve them when as you allude to for many people just the effort of getting up in the morning and staying upright and functioning takes probably more effort. I think our culture has many things a bit topsy turvey. There are many people who struggle every day and they are marginalized by our society and it is very judgemental. They are much more the heroes of our society in my humble opinion. That is the spirit of humanity. When sporting achievements can receive so much return – accolades, sponsorship, mentorship and public appearance or publication rewards there is much motivation to continue when the going gets tough – perhaps there is a deeper question about motivation to be examined here? What do you think?

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      Hello Jeni
      I’m honoured to be the recipient of your first post anywhere ! Yay! How brave of you! It still feels weird to me to post on other people’s blogs, so I totally understand (and appreciate) the effort!

      I agree our culture is topsy turvy, and athletes do get a lot of accolades. However, maybe as a society we reward them so much because it is easy to recognise the courage, determination, perseverance, self-discipline, blood, sweat and tears it takes for them to do what they do, and we all want a bit of that… but it’s perhaps our laziness to go for it ourselves that makes us watch and cheer instead ? 🙂 I don’t know, as I have done neither – been an athlete or given them accolades! But I do realise now that those kind of virtues are praiseworthy and hard to come by, no matter where they reside – in athletes or in stay-at-home-mums 🙂

  5. Hi Malini, The thing that struck me hardest from what was an insightful blog is this. Why do we seem to see the limitations rather than the limitless? Most of us have our foibles and you have admitted to not being all that sporty, well I would contend that if something took your fancy then you are able to make it happen. CAse in point is my own confessed lack of creative talent yet with a touch of enthusiasm and a guiding hand I was able to produce something that was arguably artwork. My belief is that people, such as your friend, are myopic when it comes to seeing limitations. I suffer that fools paradise where I happen to think that I can do most anything I set my mind to, whether it be creative or a physical endeavour. I ran my first marathon at 40 years of age and while I was merrily plodding along a 68 year old lady ran past me!
    So what point am I trying to make here? Simply this, maybe drive comes not from the search for something but the lack of something – the lack of seeing personal limits.

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      KIM! great to hear from you, and thank you for the warm words. I am striding forward now, completely blind to all limitations!! By the way, I’m looking forward to seeing that family tree you were painting… 🙂

  6. What a great and inspiring post.

    While I myself am not to be considered a sporty type at all (hell, if I have to go up to the third floor and there is a choice between the stairs and an elevator there are no prices for guessing which one I’ll be taking) i get his drive, his motivation. “it was about to see how far I could go” . This is what I’ll take from this. Powerfull words.

    With this motivation you can never ever go wrong. Even if you can not reach the top you will have given it your best damn try. Shoot for the moon and even if you miss you’ll land among the stars. But atleast try it. Don’t look at the top, so far away, so dauntingly far and high away and think it is beyond your reach. You can reach it (or at least as far up as possible) but you have to give it your atmost best).

    This is what I am doing now. See how far I can go on my journey.

    Thank you Malini, you have a power in your words. I bookmarked your blog. I will visit several times per week for more motivation.

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      Thanks Renee! So glad you enjoyed the post. I am learning a lot more about the concept of striving and achieving – and how much that teaches us about our ‘own selves’. In the end, that journey *within* is the one that is most important to take – and it helps us reach out and serve others better too! I think climbing Everest was as much about learning about himself as it was about how far he could climb 🙂

      I love this quote from the Baha’i Writings: “True loss is for him whose days have been spent in utter ignorance of his self.”

      Thanks for stopping by x

      1. Hey Malini, I am reading along, this is a great thread! I especially like the Baha’i Writings comment you added here… so much I had to tell you right here! I’ll keep reading now! 🙂 Vicki

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  7. Great post Malini, I love your question that you posed and believe that it is one to ask ourselves time and again. But as you say if you deliver it with judgement then it does not come from love and so serves no-one. And at the end of the day there are things that we consider as good service that turn out just to be enabling a lifestyle that opts out of life. So we can only trust our hearts on our path and continue to express from love, continue to question and continue that path through the discomfort and into joy 🙂

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      Hi Janine!

      It is SO TRUE that we have to ask ourselves that question, “how am I serving?”. Thinking about this post and writing it has really helped me wake up to that in my own being. And yes, I totally agree that sometimes what we think of as offering service, turns out to be the opposite.

      I’m going to remember your wise words, and ask myself, “How am I serving … with love?” 🙂

      Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by

  8. Hi Malini,
    Thank you for your wonderful post, very thought provoking. I can see why you would consider seeking out death defying challenges to be indulgent (and I have to confess I have been guilty of that very thought myself) but I think we need explorers and athletes in this rich tapestry of life. Those who take on unbelievable physical challenges just to find out if they can succeed where others have failed are inspirational and by pushing at such boundaries, great discoveries have be made, not just about ourselves but about everyone and the world around us. Just because he doesn’t appear to be serving humanity per se doesn’t mean he won’t in the future. Maybe pushing his own limits, physical and emotional, has prepared him for something that does serve humanity, perhaps he needed to learn something on his journey that will reveal itself in the fullness of time. It would seem he was following his whispers and he should be applauded for that 🙂
    I think what I’m trying to say is one does not preclude the other and I couldn’t agree more… ” And then we serve others better, because we know ourselves better”

    From a fellow plum pudding
    P.S. I can see I’m going to be thinking about this for the rest of the day 🙂

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      Hello Judith of the wonderful glass beads…

      thank you so much for your eloquent words and thoughtful insights. I love what you wrote!
      I must say I’m learning so much from everyone’s comments. It’s almost made me want to take back my question to my friend – it seemed such a lifetime of understandings ago (if you know what I mean!). But I guess I’ve had to take a ‘journey’ of my own, and this discussion has been part of that process.

      I do hope I get to have a cuppa (and perhaps some pudding? 🙂 with you in Brighton one day 🙂 I think we’d have a lot to talk about !


  9. Hi Malini, this is a beautifully written post. Thank you for sharing. My brother died climbing in NZ at the start of last year. it has been terribly sad for our whole family, my parents, his wife and his chlldren and many who knew him, but the strangest thing is not one of us has ever questioned why he was climbing. Sometimes in our souls we know what we have to do. We all know that he loved it and really if he was old and grey and withering away and he said he wished he had climbed that would have been worse.

    There is a wonderful book called “Mountians of the Mind” by Robert Macfarlane if you get a chance to read it, it’s all about art and mountains and much more. A sort of viseral essay/life story I thoroughly recommend, especially for anyone with loved ones who climb, or anyone who wants to climb into the mind of those that climb, especially men. There are psychic boundaries all of us have to find, for some it’s more physical for others it’s art. It’s wonderful you met your friend all these years later. He has shown you much about yourself, which is the best gift a friend can ever give. Thanks again, I love the photographs you used. 🙂

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    Hi Suzi! Gosh, I’m so sorry to hear about your brother. It’s quite an eye-opener to me that the family never asked why he did it. I would love to read that book, it has a fantastic title too. And I also like the phrase ‘psychic boundaries’. I have a few of them to oversome…or maybe they are ‘psychic Everests’ 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and sharing your insights, I appreciate it x

    1. Malini, all of us wish it hadn’t happened, we all questioned how or why it happened, but we never questioned his need to do it. We all knew that it was what he did, it was who he was. I guess in essence “Why?” is a question for the head not the heart, the left brain not the right, the mind not the spirit. When you know someone well, you know simply, it’s what they must do. There is a peacefulness in that, and once you find it, it’s serene. I think you will love the book. I found it at the second-hand bookshop I worked at, maybe you’ll find a copy online.

  11. Hi Mal
    Since we sprung from the same loins, I’m with you sister, on my ambivalence to all things sporty, so I really appreciated your final reflections on the Everests we climb daily in our lives. More to the point, why no photo of this amazing hero, who was obviously a big part of your life:):). On a more reflective note about limitations, I’ve always loved this line from Baha’ullah’s Writings: “for universality is of God and all limitations earthly.”

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      Hi sis! I didn’t post a photo of him to protect his identity 🙂 Notice, i didn’t mention his name either! The web is a very big place…and he didn’t ask to be written about!!

      Anyway, the important thing is what I learned from my encounter, and from his adventure, not so much the person…thank you for the inspiring quote, “earthly limitations” are certainly just that, and we need (at least I do) constant reminders that there is a universality to strive for.

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