Finding Hope in the Wasteland: The Status Quo vs Transformation
Right now, I'd say about 40% of my friends and connections on Social Media are struggling in some way, whether it's financially, or in their jobs, or their relationships, or health, or mental health. For those who are, it is often a significant effort to just maintain that 'status quo', to get through the day, and just feel a little hope that better days are coming. Some days that glimmer of light shines on us, and other days, it's not there, and we are in 'survival mode'.
When I'm in that dark place, the overarching question I have in the back of my mind is : "Is this all that life is? Is there a purpose to this struggle?"
In most cases, the coping mechanisms of our modern culture can be unhealthy, or a dead end for us, (which I won't list here, because, depressing!) but I'd say that generally, they don't offer a way through to provide us with a purpose or meaning that shifts us into something more life giving or visionary.
For many people, those coping behaviors are all we have, so I get how painful that place can be when we land there and those are the only options.
However, I've seen a unique benefit of nature offer something deeper and more satisfying than those of the modern culture. It's something I haven't seen talked about or written much in the context of struggle, but I think it's worth sharing in the chance that it can make a positive difference.
The root of this experience lies in the 'transformational' aspects of nature, from an 'initiation' perspective. In this case, the framing of an experience is critical, because the right framing can help us shift our focus from our own inner pain and struggle towards the questions of why we are here, and what we are meant to do with the time we have.
I learned about Rites of Passage and initiations very early in my role as a 'Forest Educator', because being in the wilderness with youth is so naturally conducive to this process. The Separation, Initiation and Integration elements are all present in almost every program, and participants go through these stages in a positive way if they are supported and understood by the facilitators (my staff and I).
I have found that students can undergo a tremendous transformation while being very physically and mentally uncomfortable, if they are prepared and if they can learn to trust their guides and their own inner knowing.
Initiations are usually pretty stressful, uncomfortable experiences. They suck, honestly, and in many cases there is a struggle to want to stay in our 'old place', which is familiar, even if it's no longer serving us. We will hang on because we believe that it's safe, and the only way we know how to live.
Breaking through to the other side is messy, and emotional and exhausting. When it happens, we totally know that SOMETHING is happening. In today's world, we usually don't have a mentor, or a guide or someone who is conscious of what is happening to us, who has gone through it, and can support us. Doing this alone can actually be quite traumatic.
I saw this in our camps and class trip programs, where students would build a wilderness shelter and then sleep in it overnight, or when they would go on a night hike, or do a fire vigil. All of these things bring up inner fears, and take us out of our comfort zones, usually for a short time, but the stress they stir up is very real.
Getting to the other side of these activities produces a very powerful relief, almost a 'high' feeling of restored well-being that is recognized in our bodies as a reward for our efforts, and an chance to learn and grow and move forward with our own journey.
The more children and teens go through these and find their way to positive outcomes, the more they learn to trust in their ability to get through then and learn the lessons they need, to come out on the other side and feel that good feeling again.
For me, this is probably one of the greatest gifts of being a 'Forest Educator', both for the participants and also for the gift of their trust and opportunity to witness their experience. That connection or bonding is something that can last a lifetime.
Joseph Campbell talked about how we live in this modern world, wandering the 'wasteland' of our unexamined lives, doomed to suffer without meaning, or ever knowing why. He believed that the quest for the Grail, from Aurthurian Legend, was the most significant myth of our time, because it was through those Trials that we endured on our quest that we receive the gifts that have the capacity to ease our pain.
I'm not equating the quest for shelter, or fire or some other wilderness challenge is 'literally' the answer to our pain, but metaphorically, it totally CAN be. I've seen people learn difficult things and that process builds an inner strength and resilience that the daily pains can't penetrate to deliver mortal wounds. These things are not 'THE' answer, but they can be 'AN' answer, for whoever begins that journey.
The wonderful thing about working consciously with youth is that it is most often fun, rewarding and creative, leading to positive relationship building that is not filled with existential angst! It doesn't move too quickly in the beginning, because trust takes time.
I don't really know how to end this long ramble, but I'll just say that if anyone is currently struggling, it's okay to spend a little time looking for a guide or mentor who can help us through that dark place. It's okay to spend some time asking those hard questions that demand our attention. Ignoring them will only cause our pain to get worse, in the long run.
We aren't meant to live in the flux of that intense initiation. It's usually just meant to be for a short while, honestly. Maybe as a culture we are all in a difficult place because our culture is not able to respond effectively to our pain, and learn what we need to learn to shift into something new. It's been a long time since we have culturally felt that 'good feeling' that we get when we are on the other side. I don't think I have ever felt it, personally, in my lifetime. It would be nice if we could get there soon, though!
I do know that being around beauty is helpful, and nature is just so damn beautiful, I think that's why it works. I'm heading outside myself, and I hope you do too!