Lessons from the trail: Hike with the body you’ve got

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20150904_150246A short time before I watched one of my water bottles fall out of my pack and over the little cliff pictured at right into the Split Rock River, I had an epiphany.

You have to hike with the body you have, not the one you once had or the one you wish you had.

The Split Rock River loop is, justly, one of the most popular loop trails on the Superior Hiking Trail. It’s accessible, smack in between two incredible and popular state parks, it has great parking, and it’s a manageable five miles or so. And it’s very, very beautiful.

In the time B.O. (before obesity) I used to knock off this trail and others like it without much trouble, with a full pack and not just a day pack.

Not any more.

20150904_152135None of that is easy to accept. In fact, it’s very easy to get down on yourself or even experience a certain self-loathing. Even if no one “fat shames” you to your face, it’s very easy for a person to do it to himself. It’s even a little embarrassing to be seen on the trail with all those fit people.

One of the reasons I was out on this hike, aiming to finish that loop, was to gauge myself physically — was I still capable of it?

So I started off down the trail at something like my old pace, and pretty soon I was winded and wishing I had my old body back.

That’s when I remembered something I learned when I first started backpacking: I have to find my gait. I’ve found that there is a certain pace and stride where I can walk comfortably and at a decent pace for a considerable distance without needing to stop often. Could I find it again, even if the pace and stride were different than they were in the good old days?

It turned out that I could.

20150904_152135That’s when I realized that I had to hike in the body I have. In fact, if I ever want to see improvements, to transform my body into something more like what I wish it were, the very first thing I have to do is accept where I am at this moment. Only by doing that can I push myself without hurting myself.

It’s the difference between shame and humility.

In the spiritual life

All this reminds me of something a favorite spiritual writer wrote about the life of a Christian: You have a certain right to begin where you are.

He writes, in Interior Freedom:

The freedom to be sinners doesn’t mean we are free to sin without worrying about the consequences — that would not be freedom but irresponsibility. It means we are not crushed by the fact of being sinners — we have a sort of “right” to be poor, the right to be what we are. God knows our weaknesses and infirmities, but he is not scandalized by them and doesn’t condemn us.

20150904_165636Here, too, shame, as opposed to humility, is self-defeating. We can be afraid to be seen, even (or perhaps especially) by God. Like Adam and Eve, we hide when we become aware of our brokenness. Maybe we wish we were more like we used to be or more like someone else.

But when we do this, we cannot grow. We have to begin where we are, and with God, we need not be ashamed, only humble and contrite.

Edify: The result of a thought of God

“We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God.” — Pope Benedict XVI

Coming to know the truth of ourselves not as just some random accident of an unfeeling cosmos but as a deliberate choice of God, who crafted our soul and holds our very being in existence at each moment out of love, is a beautiful and healing thing.

fingerIn some ways, it can be even more beautiful and also healing to remember it about every person around us.

Sometimes being aware of this can be very profound and peaceful. Just recently I was in a restaurant, and a family was walking out. They had been sitting near us, and among them was a tall young man who was talking and making jokes to someone I took to be his mother. His manner struck me as vaguely annoying until I caught the way the woman looked at him, with love and pride and rapt attention.

This was enough to jar me out of my shallow observation into a deeper perception, that God was looking at the young man and his mother — and the older guy sitting across the way with his family, the gaggle of kids that had just come in with their mother, the young couple at the next table and me and my family — with infinitely more love and attention at that very moment.

We are so often tempted to reduce people to things — as means to some end or as obstacles to something we want or even just as entertainment for us to evaluate and judge. But with practice we can foster an awareness of this deep dignity, which will help us to find a more true vision, and with it more patience and love.

Previous entries in this series:

Edify: The place of no masks

We so often live with two competing desires:

  • To be known and loved for who we really are, and
  • To hide certain things about ourselves.

We want to hide. Sometimes it’s shame. “What if they knew ….” Sometimes it’s weakness and brokenness. Sometimes it’s some thought or feeling of ours we’re afraid will hurt or disappoint someone we love. On the other hand, sometimes it’s something precious to us that we’re afraid someone will trample on.

So we filter and self-censor. We wear a bit of a mask. This is especially so in our “online life.” And that’s not always wrong. Sure, we can (and do) easily err in the direction of not revealing ourselves, but still, not everyone has a right to know everything, and not everyone can be trusted.

And yet we also deeply desire to be fully known, and loved and accepted anyway. It’s one of our deepest longings. To not wear any masks.

What’s striking is how tempting it is to wear a mask with God. Intellectually we know that’s silly. God knows absolutely everything about us. But still, we feel like we should try to impress Him most of all, and to hide anything we’re ashamed of, and certainly not to let Him know if we have doubts that He’s there or that He cares or if we’re angry with Him or hurt by something. We might even avoid praying just because of this, because we don’t feel we’ll earn His love, or because we’re afraid He’ll know how we’re really feeling and reject us.

It’s true we can’t earn God’s love. His love is a gift, and everything lovable about us was already His gift. We can only give back what He already gave us. We also can’t really hide from Him. He knows every deep, dark secret, everything we think about Him, everything we are. He knows it better than we do. And still He delights in giving us His mercy, as I heard in a homily today.

We can trick ourselves, or allow ourselves to be tricked, into running away from the one place in this life that we can truly be ourselves without any masks and still be truly loved: God’s presence. As one of my favorite spiritual writers says, we have a certain right to begin where we are, and while God may love us enough to help us change, we can know with total confidence that if we turn to Him sincerely, He will love us right now, no matter our shame or weakness or brokenness or fear. We just have to let Him love us.

Edify: Being for something

It’s very easy to go through life defining ourselves by what we’re against. It’s easy because there is a long list of genuine evils in the world which we have a responsibility to fight. It’s easy because ours is an age of idolatry masquerading as ideology, and we have whole industries dedicated to selling outrage in support of those idols. It’s easy because of our fallenness — it’s just easier to do demolition than it is to do construction. It’s easy because our default stance as a culture is ironic detachment and postmodern deconstruction. In our cynicism, we’re often skeptical of earnestness. In our relativism, we’re often skeptical we can find any good to embrace.

But suppose that’s just a cruel trick that’s been played on us. Suppose a truly human life is characterized much more by what it’s for than by what it’s against, and by drawing us away from that orientation we are drawn into apathy and nihilism and hedonism and even despair.

When we wake up and start the day driven by what we’re for, by what we love, life is more joy-filled and peaceful and less angry and bored and likely to make us hit the snooze button, isn’t it?

What am I for? What’s worth spending a life on? Even a short list expands on examination into a full life. If I’m for God and for my family and friends, so much follows directly from those commitments. I must be for the weak and the poor, because God is. I must seek my own holiness because God does. I must be for my community because my family and friends need it for their thriving. Think, in turn, of how very much is entailed in each of those.

If I made a habit of doing everything I have to do in the day conscious of the loves for which I did them, I think my life would be better.

Edify: Introduction to a series

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear. — St. Paul, Ephesians 4:29

I’ve decided to begin a series of weekly posts during Lent for a single purpose: to edify people.

To edify is “to build up.” To build a building you need a solid foundation, a good plan, sound materials, skilled workers. The same can be said for building up people. I announce here at the outset that I believe all of those are found Jesus and, because they are inseparable, in His Body the Church.

Another point: While it’s true that edifying sometimes means prior demolition, clearing the way for a firmer foundation or a better structure, that’s not what this series is about. There is a time and a place for demolition, but it is not this time or this place here. Building is harder and deserves more attention.

Will there be controversy, pain, difficulty? Probably. The way of Jesus is a straight and narrow one that goes through the Cross, His and ours. But for my part I will strive not to write anything for the sake of controversy or pain or difficulty, and all in a spirit of encouragement and hope.

My goal is to write simply and diligently and peacefully and briefly. Most of all I intend to write “on my knees,” in a prayerful spirit of humility and poverty. I make no promises of value. I have only a few loaves and fish, not enough to go far.

Feel free to share these posts if you think they will edify others. God bless you, and I’ll see you in a few days. If you use an RSS reader like Feedly you can follow the series from this link.