This past weekend I went on a 10 mile hike in the Shenandoah mountains with a group of seasoned hikers. The weather was perfect, and the majority of the journey was under a beautiful, shady canopy of trees. There was a lovely waterfall, an old 1930s cemetery, an abandoned homestead, sweet mountain laurel in bloom, and a cozy cabin for thru hikers on the Appalachian trail, infused with the smell of hickory smoke from the previous night’s fire.
Unfortunately, as an amateur attempting to go at the pace of a seasoned hiker, I lagged behind a lot and was more focused on catching up than seeing the sights around me. Heck, most of the time just breathing was a challenge! But, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and got to see just how much I could push myself, which is something I would not have done on my own, without the guidance and “peer pressure” of the folks who were more experienced than I.
One of my good friends says, “Stick with the winners.” Meaning, surround myself with people who have already achieved the goals I wish to accomplish, and be frugal with the time I spend with folks who may have good intentions or are really fun, but are mired in their present circumstances. Fortunately, I have several “winners” as companions on my spiritual journey. While the pace they set may leave me panting and aching, it’s worth the effort to keep up, sometimes.
And sometimes, it’s not.
I’ve found that spiritual journeys are a lot like hiking journeys. What makes the hike “good?” Certainly the scenery is a factor, and the weather. I love being able to linger and take pictures and immerse myself in the moment. When I go at my own pace, I get to have a relationship with my own journey, and ultimately with myself. But on my own, my progress is slower (which is not necessarily a bad thing).
Another facet of a good hike is physical exertion. It makes me stronger, and healthier. There’s the rush of adrenaline. There’s the pride of accomplishment, of knowing I stretched myself and have grown. If it were not for the leadership and guidance of a community (of hikers, or seekers of God), I’d probably miss out on the growth opportunities inherent in any activity involving more than just myself.
A balanced life is one which I have a little of both. Sticking only with the winners can be exhausting, especially mentally. It’s only human to get caught in the trap of “better than/less than,” and being only with those who’ve “made it” (or appear to have “made it” a bit more consistently than I) can be inspiring one minute and demoralizing the next, depending on how my attitude is doing.
The times I’ve journeyed alone are often when I’m able to internalize and “own” the lessons those winners have mastered. Maybe it’s a few days of sitting with my feelings and journaling about a painful incident in my past, instead of spilling my guts to anyone who will listen. Maybe it’s getting to know new people at a Meetup group, instead of stewing at home wishing one of my comfortable, “broken in” friends wasn’t busy with kid stuff or husband stuff or house stuff. Maybe it’s riding a motorcycle for the first time, or climbing a tree like when I was ten, or learning to trust that God will always, always lead me to places that are good for me, even if that’s away from the seasoned winners for a spell. They got seasoned because they, too, had time alone with themselves exploring new landscapes and revisiting old haunts with new eyes.
It used to be when I was “hiking” my spiritual journey on my own, it was a self-imposed isolation filled with self-pity because “no one understands me.” Others were either too controlling, too smothering, too boring, or just couldn’t keep up. What an arrogant piece of work I was! And if loneliness got the better of me and I “hiked” with a group, I was critical, judgmental, resentful of having to accelerate or slow my pace. And needy. And afraid of abandonment. And insecure. Really insecure.
Today I crave being with people so that I can grow. I crave walking the road less travelled on my own so I can heal and recharge. Some hikes are healing hikes, some hikes are growing hikes. Today I get to choose.