We are one,
after all, you and I,
together we suffer, together exist
and forever will recreate each other.
Teilhard de Chardin
I had long run out of English and Spanish swear words, so I had taken to inventing a bizarre combinations of both languages …an unholy Spanglish litany recited silently with every exhausting step.
Everything hurt. Everything. Muscles burned in my ankles (my ankles!) that I didn’t even know existed…to say nothing about the state of my calves. My shoulders ached under the weight of my pack, and I struggled to find some semblance of a center of gravity with the impossibly steep terrain.
You see, we were hiking in dune country.
I actually love hiking. Some adventure loving part of me kicks in and ignores my body’s usual complaints to take a break, strangely reveling in the primal sensation of being in nature and having everything I need on my back …but hiking in sand? This was some sort of bizarre torture created by the kinds of people who invent weird things like parasailing, or run with those weird shoes that look like socks with toes. This was a cruel exercise of futility that defied logic.
As any of you who have partaken in this torturous activity know, you have to take impossibly small steps as you attempt the steep incline, and you have to move in zig zags…never straight up. The only thing harder than hiking up a massive dune is the brain yoga required to quadruple your steps as you willfully increase the amount of hiking surface area in order to make it up to the top.
After two hours we hiked down to the beach to hike on the packed sand for a bit. Relieved to not have the sting of dune grass slapping against my shins and reveling in evenness of the packed sand …I regained my adventurous spirit.
A large group of partying college kids ran up to me, “Hey! Will you take our picture?” I climbed up on a huge log of driftwood and tried to give them the best shot of this night that most of them might not want to remember in the morning. All the same, I was caught up in their infectious exuberance and smiled.
Long after we passed their party the smile stayed with me, feeling strangely as though I had picked up a souvenir while passing through their country.
One couple that we nearly had to step over in order to pass could have cared less if a whole army showed up, so lost were they in their own passion and love. I smiled. Another souvenir.
At one point we ran into a couple with—im not kidding—two dire wolves (or some frightening genetic experiment resulting in two dogs so large they literally were eye to eye with me as I stood). Now, I’m not afraid of dogs, I like dogs. But these dogs growled low, hunched down and showed me their teeth in a ways that didn’t say: “excuse me stranger, kindly move past the spot my owners have claimed.” No. These dogs were saying: “ I can already taste your blood and the feel of your neck snapping in my jaw, little human.”
So I did what any person would do: I took a step back. And another…and one more…until…a wave rolled in at that precise moment, leaving me ankle deep in water and adding a few pounds of wetness to each foot. I laughed. Hard. I didn’t care about the sloshing heavy feet. All I felt was the adrenaline in my blood after facing whatever-the-hell-those-two-creatures were and the hilarity of having my primal instincts betray me. Another souvenir.
The sun was starting to hang lower in the sky, bouncing off the water with blinding silver light. I never get tired of the ways the lakeshore colors play together: the turquoise of the water, the shades of beige of the sand, the blue sky, the green dune grass, and the dark pine trees further upland.
It didn’t matter to me at this point where we were going: this particular great camping spot of mythical lore that we had undergone this torture for. I didn’t care anymore.
No longer fighting against it, I became part of the landscape, and as I did, I was able to see myself as part of everyone and everything we passed.
We wound up arriving at our destination after 3 hours of hiking in the heat of summer only to find our spot taken. Two massive dunes later, we set up tent in an “ok” spot, made a fire, ate, and collapsed in exhaustion only to wake up at 7, pack up, and start the long hike back.
This wasn’t exactly a restful trip. But rest isn’t always found in ease and comfort.
What is the solace of fierce landscapes (as author Belden Lane describes it)? What is about being uncomfortable and facing the hardship of nature that wakes us up to its beauty and our belonging to the wholeness of things?
Teilhard de Chardin claims that matter and spirit are one, and that if we are to ever have the hope of becoming more unified as a human species, we have to stop splitting our field of vision and perpetuating the lie that we are isolated from each other.
But how? How do we move into a bigger framework, seeing beyond our individual dramas and truly begin to think and see as a whole? How do we combat divisive thinking when media outlets perpetuate the political polarization that elicits a knee jerk reaction to want to differentiate ourselves from the fear, bigotry and sectarianism that we see?
I’m not one of those people, we think proudly to ourselves.
And so we continue to split the field, choosing to pitch our tent in our own version of what we believe to be true about our camp, while remaining blind to the ways we are all contributing to the colors of this great landscape we form together.
Just like my impossible hike, hardship and discomfort always carry an invitation: at a certain point there is a fork in the road and we are gifted with the choice to allow that difficulty to wake us up to a greater becoming, or to stick our heads in the sand and keep muttering our litany of self-righteousness, anger, self-pity or judgment.
Isolation is a myth that we’ve created and perpetuate, and perhaps the first step back into finding ourselves as belonging to one another is to wake up to broader system of relationships that we form part of in this cosmos, and to see how we are participants in the systems that shape our reality.
Abraham Heschel wrote:
A religious person is one who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.
If God isn’t “out there somewhere” but here, in us, as us, and moving through our creativity, exploration and efforts….then we need to stop projecting God apart from ourselves, and begin to experience God in complexity of our human experience:
Does God burn in our muscles, and stick to our skin like sweat? Is God in the challenge of weight, density, gravity and effort?
Does God sting with the slapping dune grass, constantly inviting us to stay awake with every cut?
Does God sound like the laughter of the drunken college kids? The soft murmurs of lovers? The lapping waves that eagerly rush in to kiss and cover our ankles?
Is God the terror of recognizing our own fragility in the face of bared teeth, destruction and danger?
Is God in the exhaustion at having to start over again when we thought life had offered us a reprieve? In the packing up and leaving familiar ground as we are carried by the evolutionary impulse to keep going with courage into the unfamiliar unknown?
What if we held God and humanity in the same thought?
I want my life to be marked by the capacity to suffer the harm done to others, to have my greatest passion be compassion, and my greatest strengths to be love and the defiance of despair.
Heschel’s words shine like a compass of stars in the night sky for me, pointing in the direction I want to keep journeying in: a journey marked by love, unity, and hopeful creativity. Somehow I trust that the only way to arrive at that kind of holistic vision is through the fierce landscape of our lives, the hardship and pain that offers us the opportunity to begin to see and think differently.
Strap on your packs, evolutionaries. In the coming weeks we will explore the relationship around how discomfort aids us in our evolution, giving us a chance to wake up to the wholeness of the cosmos around us.
Do your muscles burn? Good. That means you are moving, awake, alive.
What a privilege.