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Wild: An Adventure in Self-Discovery

January 11, 2015 | by Debbie Gutfreund

Four essentials for facing our deepest selves.

“Within forty minutes, the voice inside my head was screaming, What have I gotten myself into? I tried to ignore it, to hum as I hiked, though humming proved too difficult to do while also panting and moaning in agony and trying to remain hunched in that remotely upright position while also propelling myself forward when I felt like a building with legs. ..The clamor of What have I gotten myself into? was a mighty shout. It could not be drowned out...” (Cheryl Strayed, Wild, p. 51)

Following Cheryl Strayed on her solitary, 1100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in her inspiring memoir (recently made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon), we learn a lot about fear. Fear of dangers we cannot see. Fear of becoming lost when we can’t find the trail posts. Fear of the unknown and that we are all alone.

And we also learn about pain. About the pain of grief and the pain of a crumbling marriage. We walk with her through the nuances of these seemingly bottomless losses as new pain seems to arise with each step. The pain of too small boots that leave her with feet covered in blisters and black, fragile toenails that she begins to lose, one by one. The pain of hunger and thirst and exhaustion. The pain of feeling rootless yet stuck in her past. And the heavy pain of carrying one’s whole life, distilling it all somehow into a huge backpack stuffed with bare essentials for hundreds of miles.

But none of that mattered in the end compared to the potential pain of failing to reach the end of the trail. Cheryl constantly struggled to avoid being sidetracked, defeated, cut off from hope. And she found something hopeful at the end of the trail that few of us ever discover: she found a way to face herself.

Facing ourselves is ironically difficult in a culture drenched with selfies and apps that can track our every move. The more self-absorbed we become the less we seem to know who we are. Perhaps the most glaring lesson in Wild is that moving beyond ourselves is the path to self- discovery. Going out into the wild, connecting with others, overcoming our fears. We don’t see ourselves through our reflections. We cannot weigh our value on our scales. We don’t find our strengths through the apps that tell us how far we have come. Instead we come to know ourselves through our actions. By what we do when a wild moose comes charging at us from around the bend. By how we react when 100-degree temperatures suddenly plummet when we reach the next mountain, and there is so much snow blocking our way that we are sinking to our knees. Who are we in that moment?

The Sefer Hachinuch teaches us that we create our identities by how we act in every situation: “It is after one’s action that one’s heart is pulled” (Mitzvah 16 and 40). What do we do when we wake up in a sopping wet tent? How do we move on after one of our boots falls off the edge of a cliff? When you keep going despite all the obstacles in your way, you discover who you really are. When you bandage up your aching feet at the end of the day and keep climbing, when you tape up your broken sandals because you’ve lost your boots and don’t look back, you get in touch with the deepest part of yourself.

How can we live this way in our own lives? How do we move beyond ourselves and create authentic identities? Here are four essentials for self -discovery:

1. Awe. Nature teaches us awe. The majesty of the mountains, the multitude of creatures both below our footsteps and above our heads. The glittering lakes and light drenched sky. When the world awakens within us this sense of wonder, we begin to sense that there is something within us too that is more vast and more beautiful than we once knew. That there is far more to us than what is on the surface. The awesome depth of the world reflects back to us the infinite greatness within our souls.

2. Forgiveness. It is hard to forgive someone for hurting us. But it is even harder for us to forgive ourselves – for mistakes that we made, the opportunities we let go and for relationships that we lost. For the children we were and for the adults that we have become. We cannot know ourselves without moving past the surface of our regrets. We need to forgive ourselves for being afraid, for feeling stuck, for thinking What have I gotten myself into? Focus instead on what now? See your mistakes as experiences that made you stronger and helped bring you to this point in your journey.

3. Grit. Keep going. There is a way through. Rebbeztin Tzipora Heller teaches us that the challenges we are given in life are tools from our Creator. “All people come into this world to become great human beings. Therefore, the Creator provides them the exact number and type of challenges necessary to develop that greatness.” (Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, Let’s Face It, p. 12) The obstacle in your way is tailor made for you. The climb builds our muscles. Who we become by sticking with the trail is far more important than reaching the end.

4. Potential. Appreciate the greatness of who you can become. Just like there is no insignificant word or action, there is no insignificant person. You are here to change the world. There is no one else like you. You are loved and treasured by Your Creator who expects you to live up to the extraordinary possibilities embedded within you.

The trail is not always marked. And we won’t ever know all there is to know about the world or ourselves. But at the very least we will know that we are moving forward, that we are still searching, still climbing, and still discovering who we can become.


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