(A letter to my teenage son, who stays up far too late on his phone because his suicidal friends reach out to him for a listening ear, and who will be leaving home for a week of co-ed music camp with his girlfriend this summer)
Some might say it’s just a trite trail axiom. Others might say it’s a way of life, or the only way to live.
I would say we don’t get much say in the matter. It’s not like we can hike someone else’s hike through life, as much as we might sometimes want to. Certainly no one else can walk our walk for us, although every once in a while someone else might be kind enough to help us carry our burdens for a stretch while we continue trudging along, slowly putting one foot in front of the other.
But ultimately, only you can hike your hike. Only you can live your life. No one else can do it for you. You get no choice in the matter.
Being told we have no choice pisses us off. Anger is a normal biological response to a stimuli, meant to fuel our desire to act in our own best interest and survive. When we get angry enough, we fight. But anger is a mask for fear, so sometimes, we flight. In our own best interest, we run away.
Sometimes, we do both.
That, I think, is what causes suicide. The fear we experience when we’re told we have no choice about the cards we’ve been dealt toxically mixes with the rage that fuels our desire to take action, to rebel. We throw down our hand in disgust, and refuse to play. “I do, too, fucking have a choice, and I choose to fucking end it!” And in an act of great paradox, we win the argument and lose the war.
Obviously there’s a lot more to suicide than that. There’s also the immeasurable burden of emotional or physical pain that one carries, often (but not always) amplified by chemical dependency, biochemical disorders, abuse, or trauma. The desire for relief outweighs even the strongest instinct to survive if the pain, even if brief, is intense enough.
Fear tells us the pain won’t ever stop. If the pain does stop, fear tells us it will be back, that it will keep coming back, that it will get worse, that it will kill us.
That we have no choice.
Fuck that, we say. Pain can’t kill me if I do the job first. To someone in pain, this makes all the sense in the world. So in a moment of simultaneous fight and flight, we end it.
I have a friend living with terminal cancer. Living with, not dying of; the words we use matter. He fights the cancer, hard. He carries pain that most of us can’t even fathom. I would have given up long ago. I don’t know how he keeps going, knowing that eventually the cancer will win.
Except here’s the thing. It’s not really the cancer that’s terminal. It’s life. The cancer will lose and die when my friend’s earthly body dies. The cancer will contribute to its own demise by continuing to spread and take over its host. But it’s not cancer that’s terminal, it’s life itself; we all die, whether we have cancer or heart disease or diabetes or addiction or happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or live a perfectly chaste and continent existence for more than a century. With death, as with life, we have no say in the matter.
But like cancer, we may be contributing to our own demise.
And that is a choice.
So it stands to reason – if how we choose to live can impact how we die, then how we choose to live can impact how we live, as well.
We can choose how we hike our own hike.
Hike your own hike means making choices in your own best interest, even if they are not the choices others would have you make. So first and foremost, make choices in your own best interest, not someone else’s. But keep in mind that cancer, acting out of unbridled self-interest, is contributing to its own demise.
Hiking your own hike means making choices knowing you will have to live with those choices, and with their consequences, and that sometimes your choices will be ineffective and flat out wrong, and the consequences will hurt and could do great harm. But choosing not to choose and habitually allowing others to make choices for you is also doing yourself harm. Do not purposely choose to do harm to yourself or others; that is not in your best interest.
Choose to give yourself adequate time to consider what actually is in your best interest. The easy choice is often not the best. The hard choice is just as often not the best, either. Learn to discern by giving yourself permission to make mistakes. If you have to make the same mistake more than once, forgive yourself and accept that many lessons take repetition to achieve mastery. Practice, however, does not make perfect. Practice makes better, until you are consistently doing your best. And that is something of which you can be proud, even if you are not perfect.
Remember that life is still terminal even when you consistently make the best choices. In those moments when the burdens of regret and shame from your mistakes and failures feel heavy, remember those feelings are the privilege of the living. The honors student killed in the car accident, the man in his 30s whose heart unexpectedly stopped beating, the mom in her 40s who went to bed, had a brain aneurysm and never woke up, the music teacher who lost her life while riding her bike no longer have the luxury of carrying the burden that comes with the gift of making choices. So choose to write the song, or eat the chocolate cake, or sleep late, or climb the mountain.
Choose the job that pays less but gives you the time to hike your own hike. Call in late to work and put the phone on mute, and take the time to write the love letter to your child. Be grateful every time you pay for the roof over your head even if you can’t afford to buy a new car. Remember that you can only hike your own hike with help from a higher power, which most often comes in the form of other people, even people we don’t like, sometimes people we detest. No one hikes alone, even if we hike solo; at the very least someone else made the boots we wear.
Don’t use “learning” as a justification for knowingly making a mistake. Don’t deliberately make the choice that leads to regret or shame. Growth and strength come from the discipline of making effective choices repeatedly. Progress comes from choosing to walk, and choosing to rest, each when the time is right. Listen to your gut, especially in that rare (and it is rare) instance when you don’t have time for deliberation and discernment. Listen to your heart, because that’s where your higher power lives, and where that power will speak to you. If you have time, ask other people to share their experience so you can learn from their mistakes rather than making your own. In this way you avoid picking up the burden of shame while helping to lessen theirs.
And if someone (for example, your well-intentioned mother) gives you advice for which you did not ask, consider that perhaps the shame and regret of their choices is heavy, and it’s their way of trying to set it down. Let them. Take a good look at what it is that burdens them. You don’t have to pick up what they set down before you. Like you, they are hiking their own hike. Let them.