Wrong Wall, Wrong Ladder

What happens when you reach the last rung on the ladder only to find that it was up against the wrong wall? Ray Blunt shares lessons learned on the professional ladder and the grace he found when he chose to stop climbing.

Many years ago now, I knew a young man who had quickly worked his way up in the world, but then surprisingly arrived at an unexpected fork in the road: one he never thought he would come to. This was not the way it was supposed to be. If I could only have talked to him then with the wisdom I now have, I might have been able to help him. As it was, he was on his own to figure it out, and it almost unhinged him. It all happened like this:

He was on his way to what in Washington was deemed an important meeting-one in which important people meet with other important people to talk about important things they think will change the course of civilization. It was early and the sun was just making its grand entrance over the Potomac River. To the east he could see the Washington Monument rising above the fray of politics.  The cherry blossoms were still hanging on for their last hurrah of spring. To the north lay the spires of Georgetown University and beyond that the somewhat medieval National Cathedral, the nation’s go-to church when mourning the great and the dead and when national tragedy strikes. Further north he could almost see the worn down mountains, at least in his mind’s eye, that rise above Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, where the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers shake hands before they run together to the Chesapeake Bay.

He felt a yearning, a pull then as he described it, to be back on that pinnacle overlooking the confluence with his strong, young son–nothing but a backpack–looking forward to a fire, a tent, and a wee dram of single malt shared together. No phones, no e-mail, and no tie. And especially no need to look over his shoulder for the political and personal enemies that he had accumulated in the bureaucracy wars of the last ten years. As he came to the turn east across the River and over the 14th Street Bridge, he said a strange thing happened, unlike anything he had experienced in his short, responsible life on his way up. He didn’t turn; he didn’t feel the tug of duty; he just kept driving north, climbing higher above the rapids and the kayakers below, simply enjoying the light and the water as they played together on a spring day. He was free!

After a few minutes, he decided to pull off on what he knew was one of the last overlooks on the George Washington Parkway, just simply to enjoy the view. The next few minutes he describes as his personal epiphany, the moment when the well worn path and the road less traveled both loomed before him. As he looked north, to his left, there lay the promise of an unplanned day hiking and thinking–maybe even more than a day. How long had it been since he last had time to think, really think? To his right, stretched out in a long seam of great, marble buildings and monuments lay the life he had built brick by brick, rebuilt really, after leaving his military career behind. He had made it to the top he thought.

As he describes it now, he began to see with clarity something akin to that old saw about having reached the last rung on the ladder only to find that it was up against the wrong wall. The sharp realization hurt like a quick stab: he had been a fool. Reluctantly, after a few more minutes of thought he did head back to the city, having missed his important meeting. But that day also began his descent off the ladder.  Far more lay ahead than he realized at the time.

Yes, I do think I could have helped him make sense of it all had I been with him.  But maybe it’s best I didn’t share my hard won wisdom then-me or anyone else for that matter. Because he just would not have learned the hard lessons God had only begun to teach him. You see, that young man, all alone with his dilemma, was me. I had so much to learn before I became an old man.

Almost two dozen years out of the Air Force Academy, I finally had begun to gain some knowledge those years of advanced schooling and long days and nights of labor failed to teach me.  Despite great mounds of accumulated knowledge of everything from Plato to John Maynard Keynes to the Bible, I had failed to get much wisdom into my pea brain. Like I think a lot of young men that were nurtured in the quaint time of the 50s, I was to be the family “messiah,” the one designated for great things: to get the college education that World War II interrupted; to embark on the career that the Great Depression and poverty had derailed; to achieve the spiritual temperament and wisdom that alcohol erased. And so I was driven by my own choices, by the tenor of the times, and the by culture I was raised in on the gritty South Side of Chicago to get on up on the ladder. To a competitive young man from the Sputnik era, a guy who loved winning at all sports with a drive for leadership, the shiny, new space age Air Force Academy with its “whole man concept” seemed perfect:  an Eagle Scout’s dream.  And I think it was, or could have been had I been just wiser. But then this old man wasn’t around to advise that young fellow.

The aggressive atmosphere of hundreds of other guys who were competitors and achievers themselves only fed my desire to keep going up whatever ladder was before me. My Academy career only served to stoke the fires before heading to Vietnam, but then when I flunked the flight physical after graduating, I began to wonder what was up with God.  This was not the plan.

Weird as it sounds, I had only the foggiest idea what officers in the Air Force did if they didn’t fly. Certainly anything less than a fighter pilot was second class, or that’s the way I read the messages I was receiving. So despite what would have been viewed as a successful stint in missile operations, I felt I’d fallen short of my goals-I was sitting below ground, not flying supersonic at 40 thousand feet. Some great mentors in my next assignment in the Pentagon tried to persuade me to keep to my calling in the Air Force, but I still impatiently felt I was missing something God had for me to do.

For lack of another rung upward, I decided to respond to a request to teach leadership and national security issues at the Air Force’s corporate university.  In retrospect, it was there, if I had listened, I might have heard a still, small voice. I didn’t. The buzz in my ear of “What rung is next?” drowned it out.  Yes, teaching was something I gravitated to. Research, learning, distilling ideas into bite sized pieces of knowledge, writing, using strategic thinking-all that I learned to love. And I was home on time every day for the first time in our marriage finding myself happy, really happier than in many years. We started going to church as a family and enjoying the pace of life and our new focus and priorities. That should have been a clue, but clues for the clueless don’t stick for long. But after four years, the Pentagon called again, and despite a great opportunity as a general’s aide and an early promotion, all I could see was that non-pilots were ineligible for the very highest rungs of the ladder where the stars shone. So I decided God wanted me to take my search elsewhere.

Looking back, it was either the biggest mistake I ever made or the only thing that saved me. Over the years, I have often pondered that conundrum through times of deep depression and questioning. But, as the great lion says to Lucy in the Chronicles of Narnia, “To know what would have happened, child?” said Aslan. “No. Nobody is ever told that.” I only know what did happen next.

The bloody details are unimportant. The easiest way to describe it is I did have the insight, after some unwise decisions, that my calling was still public service. I was wired that way. So despite a recession in the mid 70s, I landed a mid level job at the Department of Veterans Affairs where I had two totally contrary reactions: a sense of meaning and purpose around the mission-”To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan”-and a deep sense of failure that I was relegated to a moribund, civilian bureaucracy that was worse, if possible, than any tales I had heard. It was a love-hate relationship from the beginning.

Here in the second largest agency in the entire Federal Government with over a quarter million employees, hundreds of hospitals and clinics and offices in every state of the Union, we seemed paralyzed to carry out what was owed our nation’s wounded warriors, some my classmates. We were led, it seemed to me, primarily by sleepy, older men who had a cozy relationship with a few Hill staffers and interest groups designed to keep things humming along at an unchanging pedestrian speed. It was an incestuous relationship that aimed to thwart any outside Secretary who wanted to change things for the better–or any still idealistic public servant for that matter. What was needed was a sense of urgency in the aftermath of Vietnam as its broken in body and spirit soldiers returned. What was there was business as usual and I wanted to fix it and get high enough to do it.

Then came Max Cleland only six months after I had begun, and the place hummed with energy and passion that only an impatient triple amputee who had not been well served could bring. With that focus came a desire to turn the Department upside down, get new, younger blood into leadership, and start carrying out what it was designed to do–all with caring and compassion. “VA, may I help you,” became a mantra. He shook me out of my ennui and self pity and within the short space of six years I found myself promoted six times. I could go no further. At the age of 37, I had reached the last rung where the air was thin. This is where life would now begin to have full meaning I thought and I would do God’s work. Sure, I wasn’t a fighter pilot and, yes, I would never reach my secret goal of pinning on stars, but I did the next best thing-or so I thought. It took me seven more years to get to that fateful overlook.

What has happened in the ensuing years is what I wished I could have told that young man that day above the Potomac River, even before, but those lessons only came by experience. In a real way, I “lived into” what I now believe I was called to do, prepared to do by all of it.  I sure did not plan my way into it despite what I thought. Indeed, that is one of my life lessons: we are taught by our cause, by our purpose, by our calling-and by our Caller. I was wired for leadership, but when a good thing becomes an end unto itself, it becomes your god, your place of meaning, your “never enough.” And it is a literally obscene course.  Ob – scene:  without story.

I came to that overlook in a spate of exhaustion, disappointment, and having barely survived an almost busted marriage with a boatload of parenting and personal regrets, God had me right where he wanted me that day. Time to shut up and listen. And so, taking advantage of a little known provision for Senior Executives, I embarked on a year’s sabbatical from public service to work with people who had nothing in life, learn the non-profit business from the ground up, and simply spend some good time with my ever patient and grace-giving wife, B.J. That and think, pray, and take walks. I wasn’t sure if I’d retire early or just fade away. I only knew I needed to disengage entirely. B.J. thought the rest saved my life; I think it likely saved my soul or, more precisely, saved me from myself and my accomplishments as my god. Bird watching and hiking became our hours of true grace. I even began to learn that my so-called religion was nothing much more than another chance to look good in the eyes of others and get God to smile at me once in a while.  So we took a sabbatical from church, too. Yes, and we both began to learn about the difference between law and grace in the bargain; that learning continues. And slowly, imperceptibly, I came down off the ladder and got my feet back on the ground.

I did return to public service after a year only to find that my job had been abolished, my title removed, the good people we had recruited over the years were scattered about, many leaving government in disgust. And the earth was salted for good measure by my so-called “enemies.” The 400 square foot office overlooking the Capitol and the White House became an interior cubicle. It was the best thing, the right thing for me; for us.  The next six years would be the best, most satisfying of my entire 35-year public service career. Everything I had learned over the years came to bear and though the politics remained, without power I found service and humility were far more effective in getting real things done for real people. Despite myself I had discovered in true fashion what servant leadership was all about outside the pages of the Bible. But then I had a pretty good Teacher.

It’s been almost 15 years since I quasi-retired and left public service, years in which I have come to realize I was being prepared to live this last chapter of life by my failures and by my experiences going back to Academy days.  My mission in life now is clear:  to help grow the next generation of servant leaders. Whether teaching or consulting, speaking or writing, I have a lot of lessons I can honestly say come mostly from my screw ups-those which I want others to avoid if they have ears to hear sharper than mine were as a callow youth.  I’ve taught doctoral students and now high school students, and the earlier they can learn about walls and ladders the better.

And I’ve latched onto some good mentors and friends along the way like Steve Garber who brought me Abraham Kuyper and taught me how to teach and to see vocation whole; Beau Boulter who accepted my warts and introduced me to Tim Keller and Gospel living; and Haddon Robinson who showed me about a life that teaches integrity and focuses on big ideas. And there are a lot of young folks B.J. and I mentor now who are just starting to climb the ladder like we did and we have a few words to say about that. If they don’t believe us we show them the scars. It’s not so easy getting off the last few rungs but I am so thankful we did when we did and that B.J. had the grace to bear with me on that journey.

If I have any useful way to wrap this up it would be to conclude where I have arrived at in my own story-thus far at least-for now it is a story in full and not just a never-ending climb. I find life to be purposeful; it’s the best time of life in fact. And I do hope to finish it well. But what gives it an abiding purpose now is finding my chief end in life was never anchored in myself. The lesson that began at the overlook so long ago was certainly that I had put my ladder up against the wrong wall.  Gradually, I also found that it was the wrong ladder. I needed a ladder that went downward.

Life is paradox. To rise up one descends. Check it out in Philippians 2:5-10. I did twenty years ago, and finally it began to make sense as a way to live even though I’d heard it many times: descent and death lead to real power and lasting accolades; service requires sacrifice; obedience to God is out of love, not coercion or self aggrandizement. We either seek to be served by God’s blessings and people’s affirmation or we seek to serve God’s purposes and others’ needs. That’s the way life works when it’s really humming on all eight cylinders. It certainly does not rest on my accomplishments-or my self atonement. I can relax. It is finished.  Knowing that my God not only descended the ladder to this earth but lived the life I could not live and then died the death I could not die has made all the difference for me. In fact, without his descent there would be no resurrection. That’s the real last rung.  And I’m counting on that to be true. All of it. I’m in the last chapter. Soli Deo Gloria.

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Ray Blunt is a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute as well as the Senior Mentor for discipleship at Ad Fontes Academy.

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