How I’m Learning to Thrive in the Wilderness

Let’s face it – 2016 was rough. As the year ends I’m learning not only how to survive the metaphorical wilderness of life, but also how to thrive in it.

My tendency in life is to skip past the wilderness — anything difficult, uncomfortable, and untraveled. I desire ease, comfort, and even self-preservation. The opposite of my natural instinct is to wander through the wilderness — to sit in pain, allow myself to feel the discomfort, and turn my life upside down on a path never tread. In time I am learning not merely to survive, but to find a way to thrive in life’s wilderness in a real, tangible way.

Modern civilization has been destroying wilderness — oceans, forests, deserts — for decades, as the human population increases and more value is placed on manicured lawns and climate controlled living spaces. Modern civilians like myself must learn a new way to wrestle with life in the midst of technology, distractions, and instant gratification. Maybe that’s why people who truly grew up on the land are intrinsically more in tune with the rhythms of life — birth, aging, death — because they have experienced life in unsterile environments, in their homes. In Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name, the indigenous people of Kingcome village in British Columbia seem to accept the wilderness of human life because their life is lived in the wilderness of nature: “Here every bird and fish knew its course. Every tree had its own place upon this earth. Only man had lost his way.”

Even in our collective confusion, there is something basic but undoubtedly beautiful about the wilderness.

Cherish your wilderness. — Maxine Kumin

Cheryl Strayed wrote her best-selling memoir, Wild, on exactly this experience. Her story of honesty, self-awareness, and self-love was made even more famous by the film starring Reese Witherspoon. Women of all ages find solace in the book — not because each of us has been on heroin binges or spent the night with an alluring Oregon man (cue Michiel Huisman). Cheryl Strayed’s experiences are wildly her own — but her spirit of longing and remembering herself, of conquering fear and choosing to trek through the forest for her salvation are wildly universal.

If you have never walked through a wilderness in your life, you likely don’t know what you’re made of. Consequently, if you have walked through wilderness in your life, you likely know exactly what you’re made of. You are weak and fragile, yet unwaveringly beautiful and strong.

While the wilderness, actual or metaphorical, is not a comfortable or cushy experience, it brings a unique peace. We experience moments of clarity along the path. After hiking the Appalachian Trail, Bill Bryson writes, “I understand now, in a way I never did before, the colossal scale of the world. I found patience and fortitude that I didn’t know I had. I discovered an America that millions of people scarcely know exists. I made a friend. I came home.” Life is brought back into perspective. Clarity comes when the crisp air hits our lungs at the top of a mountaintop or edge of a canyon. It’s cold as hell but it’s quiet and still.

This is the place where our never-ending cascade of thoughts and anxieties finally quiet themselves, in awe of the greatness of the mountain we are climbing. The largest mountains in our lives demand awe — without a realistic view, we could never climb them. Or maybe it’s the quiet place where we can finally hear our own voice in the stillness of the night. Where we can actually hear every fear and broken dream echoing in our minds. This is the place where we acknowledge the deepest pain and lost love, and allow it room to breathe so it no longer holds the power to suffocate. Cheryl says it perfectly:

How wild it was, to let it be.

So in this moment, if you find yourself in a treacherous wilderness, just breathe. Place one foot in front of the other, nurture yourself when you stumble, and shout from the mountaintops for each peak that you climb.

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