Find Your Spiritual Harness

A while back I published a blog post on the merits of not using a harness. Fred Kofman has a different perspective on the metaphor of using a harness…  Paul T.


By Fred Kofman


In my first rock-climbing lesson, I got stuck. I could see a ledge next to my right knee, but nothing for my hands to hold. I cried for help. My instructor directed me to the ledge.

“Thanks for pointing out the obvious,” I thought sarcastically. Since my life was literally in his hands, I contained myself.

“I see it! But there’s nothing else!” I shouted.

“Just step up. You’ll probably find a handhold that you can’t see from where you are now”.

“PROBABLY?” I muttered under my breath, “What the hell do you mean, ‘Probably?’ I am not betting my life on ‘probably!’”

“What happens if I don’t find anything?” I yelled.

“If you don’t find anything,” he replied, “fall back on the harness, check out the wall, and try again.”

I flashed back to the many times in my life when I was paralyzed by fear because I could only see one step ahead. Giving up the security of what I had for the possibility of what I wanted seemed far too dangerous. How many dreams had I squashed just because I couldn’t envision the full path from here to there?

I should have taken that first step, trusting that I would find an opening, invisible from my current position. “What happens if I don’t find anything?” “Fall back on the harness, check out the wall and try again.”

In life, the harness is both material and spiritual. You used your mind at school to build your professional strategy. Now you need to use your soul to build your spiritual strategy.

Whom Do You Admire?

Here are three questions with which to make your harness:

1. Whom do you admire? Choose three persons you esteem highly. They can be real people such as your grandmother or Michael Jordan, or fictional characters such as Braveheart or Katniss Everdeen. My three would be: Victor Frankl, Muhammad Yunus, and Giancarlo Ibargüen.

2. What do you admire in them? Identify the traits that make these people admirable to you. I admire Frankl’s resilience, dignity, and wisdom. I admire Yunu’s compassion, determination, and creativity. I admire Ibargüen’s integrity, courage, and love of freedom.

3. How did they demonstrate their admirable traits? Find examples where your characters showed the traits you admire. What did they do, and in what circumstances did they do it? Frankl transformed his horrendous Auschwitz experience into a life-affirming philosophy. Yunus funded millions of entrepreneurs through Grameen Bank. Ibargüen fights indefatigably for liberty and justice as dean of the Universidad Francisco Marroquín.

The Good News

After doing this exercise thousands of times, I have yet to find anyone who selected qualities such as power, wealth, youth, beauty, pleasure, or fame. People are much more likely to admire qualities such as love, justice, discipline, vision, kindness, compassion, commitment, and courage. The first traits are outcomes; the second ones are choices. The first ones depend on external circumstances; the second ones depend on you.

The Greek philosopher Socrates said that a happy life is a life in which you become one of your admirable characters. The good news is that such a life is your choice.

For example, winning a gold medal depends not only on your discipline, effort, and commitment, but also on many other factors such as your genetic endowment, life conditions, and who is competing against you. Your discipline, effort, and commitment, however, depend only on you. Apply yourself to any endeavor with gold-medal discipline, effort, and commitment; that is all you need to be proud.

Everybody loves a winner, but you are better off focusing on the virtues that you reveal through your actions. Even if you don’t succeed, you will achieve something much more important: true success.

“True success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”

–John Wooden

I am not saying that success is unimportant, that failure is okay, or that you should feel good about missing your goals. To live with excellence, you must use your resources fully, doing your best to accomplish the outcomes you seek. What I am asserting is that if you want to live a “good life” you must first learn to subordinate success to integrity.

The Better News

What situations revealed the traits you admire in your characters? I bet they were not pleasant ones.

As I argued here, heroes need adversity to demonstrate greatness and challenges that push them beyond their comfort zone. Frankl faced the Nazi death camps. Yunus faced extreme poverty. Ibargüen faced enemies of liberty. The very difficulties they confronted afforded them the possibility of displaying their admirable qualities. Although they appeared to be curses, they were in fact blessings.

Admirable characters may fail, but they do so gloriously. Frankl, for example, didn’t escape the camp or free his fellow prisoners. Yet his inevitable and harrowing situation provided him with the ultimate platform by which to demonstrate his dignity and compassion—not only through his activities in the camp but also as a therapist for the rest of his life.

Dear graduates, as you prepare to go out into the world, remember that an extraordinary protagonist requires an extraordinary antagonist. To become your admirable character, you will need adversity to show your mettle. Welcome it. Whenever your mind screams, “Oh sh*t!” let your soul whisper, “Oh fertilizer!”

 “Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.”

– Rainer Maria Rilke

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