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The Lesson Of The Cliff

I first read “Lesson of the Cliff”, in the February 1986 edition of Reader’s Digest Magazine. I liked the article so much that I have saved the magazine for 22 years. The story was written by Morton Hunt and originally published in the July 14, 1985 edition of Parade, the Sunday newspaper insert. The Reader’s Digest article is a condensed version of the Parade story, which I have never read.

February 1986 Reader\'s Digest \

Over the years I have re-read it to inspire me when I was reluctant to take the first step toward a goal or decision.

I haven’t been able to find the article on the web so that I can link to it. I don’t think I can just re-publish the story without permission either, but I will try and give you a sense of what Morton Hunt wrote.

The story begins with Morton as an 8 year old boy in Philadelphia. He starts to climb a high cliff with some friends. They stop to rest on a small ledge near the top. The rest of the group continues to the top, but he is too frightened to continue up. He imagines that if he attempts to go back down he will fall and die. His friends leave and he is alone. As it starts to get dark, his father appears. His father tells him not to think about how far down it is and to just concentrate on taking one little step. His father tells him to put his foot on a rock just below the ledge. His father guides him to put his other foot on another rock a little lower.

He gains confidence with every step. One step at a time, he makes his way to the bottom. The experience teaches him a lesson that he never forgets and that he uses throughout his life.

Next,  it is January 1945 and the Second World War is raging. He has to fly an unarmed plane on a reconnaissance mission deep into German occupied territory. He imagines being shot down and killed by enemy anti-aircraft fire or fighter planes. The next morning he takes off and reminds himself that he only has to climb to 25,000 feet and fly east. He focuses on flying one leg of the mission at a time, never picturing the whole trip, until he is back over friendly territory.

Skip to January 1957. He has been offered a book contract by a famous American publisher. It is to be a history of love from the early Greeks to the present. He can’t imagine how he is going to research all of that  history. It seems impossible and beyond his capabilities. He remembers the lesson of the cliff: If he only looks at one step at a time, he can do it. He concentrates on reading about love among the Greeks and writes the first chapter. It takes him two and a half years, but eventually the book is complete and published a few months later.

It is June 1963 and his marriage is breaking apart. He has to move out and get an apartment. He can’t imagine how he is going to tell his young son. He doesn’t know how he and his wife are going to divide their possessions. In September, after taking many individual steps, he moves into a new apartment and begins to learn the skills he needs to function as a single man.

Here is a quote from the final paragraph: “I have realized time and again, that, having looked at a far and frightening prospect and been dismayed, I can cope with it after all by remembering the simple lesson I learned long ago on the face of a small cliff. I remind myself to look not at the rocks far below but at the first small step and, having taken it, to take the next one, until I have gotten to where I wanted to be. Then I can look back amazed and proud, at the distance I have come.”

It is a simple, practical lesson. When you are faced with a project or task that appears overwhelming, decide what the first step is and take it. If you can break the problem down into a series of steps you need to complete to accomplish your goal, do it. But then, only focus on the step that you need to take next. When that step is taken, focus on the next one. Eventually, you will arrive at your destination.

“Lesson Of The Cliff”, along with 30 other stories, was reprinted in 2002 by Reader’s Digest in a book called “The Spirit of Courage.

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