On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary became the first person to reach the top of Mount Everest. The great mountaineer Sir George Mallory thrilled the world in 1924 when he boasted that he would conquer Everest “because it’s there,” but two months later, he died trying. Hillary saved his own bragging for the way down, when he told his friend George Lowe, “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.”
Hillary instantly became an international superstar. Queen Elizabeth II made him a knight. He travelled to the North and South Poles, wrote a dozen books and started the Sir Edmund Hillary Himalayan Trust which built schools, clinics, hospitals, airfields, bridges and pipelines that served millions of people throughout the Himalayas.
But Hillary did not consider any of those external manifestations of heroism or fame to be his greatest achievement. Instead, many years after Everest he explained his life to a reporter. “I am a lucky man,” he said. “I have had a dream and it has come true, and that is not a thing that happens often to men.”
On that snowy day in 1953 when Hillary boasted that he had “knocked that bastard off” he didn’t mean the mountain itself. No. The thing that Hillary had knocked off, the thing he captured and subdued, was his dream of climbing the mountain. That is why his other great accomplishments paled against the singular achievement that took place within the confines of his deepest human spirit. His greatest feat was simply this––he had identified his deepest aspiration and he made it come true. He had achieved a mastery of risk and change. And that, as he realized late in life, “is not a thing that happens often to men.” Or to women.
Sir Edmund Hillary went on to live a life that changed the world. But first, he had to change himself. Change has always been a favorite subject of scholars and sages. In ancient times, many philosophers thought that the world simply and always remained the same. Day after day, year after year. The appearance of change was simply a deception, they thought. Sort of a cosmic optical illusion. They believed that nothing actually ever changed; everything stayed the same.
But one great thinker named Heraclitus knew better. He believed that the Earth and everybody on it were constantly changing. Heraclitus said that it was not possible for anything to stay the same. Everything was changing into something new, becoming something that didn’t yet exist. An eternal resolve for transformation and renaissance was knit into the fabric of the universe.
Heraclitus knew that our senses trick us into seeing constancy in the face of endless change. His best-known explanation for this phenomenon is the example of a river.
Someone that stands next to a river might think it is a natural constant. It has existed for thousands of years. It may last a million more. It appears to all the world as if the river that exists right now is the same one that has always existed. The essence of The-River-of-Today has never changed. But to Heraclitus, it was this perception of constancy that was the cosmic optical illusion, and he demonstrated his conclusion with a simple thought experiment.
A person who steps into the river will feel the water flowing past. It may move quickly or slowly but it does move, and if that person comes back to the river tomorrow and steps into it again, the water which they feel will be different water. The water from the first day is gone. It has flowed downstream. Even the riverbed, the sand and the rocks will have moved and shifted, at least a little. They too have changed. Fish? Algae? Bubbles? Change, change and more change. The river of yesterday has become the different river of today. It looks the same, but its essence is something new.
Heraclitus explained this simple fact with one of the best-known maxims in the history of philosophy: “A person cannot step into the same river twice.” The fact that the river has changed makes perfect sense. But Heraclitus knew that the reason a person cannot step into the same river twice is not just because the river has changed. The person has changed, too. They have learned things. Seen, heard, done and experienced things which have changed them in a thousand ways: some of which may be as grand as standing atop Mount Everest, others may be so imperceptible that they are hardly noticed.
In all of our lives, the flow of existence constantly produces a new personal essence, just as the flow of the water constantly produces a new river. Transformation. Evolution. Renaissance.
Change. The challenge we all face is governing the direction of that change. Do we move from good to better or from bad to worse? Do we stay safe and static or venture into the uncertain opportunities that lay beyond the frontier? These are the questions that we all must answer, like it or not. As the French writer Jean Paul Sartre reminds us, “We are condemned to be free.” We have no choice. Heraclitus knew this and anyone who thinks about it honestly for a minute or so knows it too. There can be no such thing as standing still. Change is an inherent condition of all existence.
Thousands of years ago, Heraclitus expressed this fundamental law of human existence with two words: “Everything flows.” Everything flows, and so do we. We are changing and becoming new each and every day. The challenge for our lives is to recognize the changes.
We have to get used to them. We must learn to master them. In those ways, we are all the same.
Spero T. Lappas, Ph.D., is a writer, lawyer, lecturer, artist and educator headquartered in Harrisburg. He is the author of Conquer Life’s Frontiers: A Philosophy of Personal Fulfillment, which is available at Alithos.Media/shop. Natural Awakenings readers may enter coupon code Awake for special discount pricing.