Conquering your personal Everest


MIND MOVES:The highest mountain may be inside your head, writes TONY BATES

SHE MADE an entrance and sang so beautifully that she gave me goosebumps. Her voice resonated with depth and colour and mystery. Others had performed earlier that night and had all been impressive. But she brought something new and different to the event: warmth and radiance. Her face was lit from within.

Something had happened to set her free. She inhabited the moment. It had taken endless slogging, countless bus journeys and hours of practice to get to this moment. But there was something else. A mountain she had to climb inside herself, a mountain that no one could see, where secrets had to be exposed and horrors had to be confronted.

But standing there so proudly, holding us effortlessly in the palm of her hand, one could never have guessed the path she had had to travel and the courage it took.

How little we know about what really goes on in the heart and mind of another. How easy it is to look at someone in a crowd, or listen to them speak, and make snap judgments. We are drawn by some superficial detail – unpolished shoes, dirty fingernails, a pretty face – and weave a story in our minds about the life they’ve lived and how they feel inside.

How wrong we are.

“There is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face” was a line I learned by heart for the Leaving Cert. From Macbeth, if memory serves me. People are generally far more complex and interesting than we give them credit for. While some clearly wear their hearts on their sleeves, most people hide the wallops they’ve taken behind a smile, and shrug off sorrow with a joke. Their pain lurks in the shadows of their conversation, maybe implied, maybe suggested, but never openly revealed. And if they do try to let us know, we may not be listening.

It can be hard for someone to be heard above the noise of other people’s assumptions and judgments about them.

Of course our intuition is not always wrong. Sometimes we may get an accurate sense from the face of a person, or the way they hold themselves, that they have had more than their fair share of heartbreak. But with so many others we imagine that they have easy lives, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Do we ever really know?

Only five people in that packed hall knew what this night meant to her as she gave everything she had, up there on the stage. In that moment she knew what it was like to be free.

We all climb mountains. They come in different shapes and sizes. Some of these are out there in the world and our achievements are for everyone to see. Other mountains are not obvious to the naked eye; they may be invisible to others but monumental to us. And when we make it over some mountain or hill, our joy is deeply personal, and perhaps hard for others to grasp.

In a kitchen a woman feeds her family out of leftovers and what’s in the press, and her children say “Mam, that was lovely”; a man who had felt demoralised recovers some dignity through helping someone and feeling useful; a young person who felt diminished by a poor exam result knuckles down and gets through on the repeat. These achievements may not be obvious to the naked eye, but inside us we feel we have got somewhere. They are our way of refusing to be defined by what has happened to us in our past. They allow us to touch something true about ourselves, and feel alive.

As Alice Miller wrote: “In order to become whole, we must try through a long process to discover our own personal truth, a truth that may cause pain, before giving us a new sphere of freedom. Most people do exactly the opposite.”

At the end of the show, the singer stepped forward to take her bow. She embodied her gift unselfconsciously, looking out at the world with sheer joy, spreading an energy that was as liberating for us as it was for her. Even though they would never know, or need to know, what it had taken for her to get there.

Tony Bates is founding director of Headstrong, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health (