Lessons from the Mountaintop

Lessons from the Mountaintop

Photo by Takae Goto

Family Peace Association youth leadership programs usually include a segment held in the great outdoors, an adventure hike or the like. This year was no exception and the hikers were given a chance to climb out to what was ominously dubbed “Blood Mountain.” Yet, the experienced hikers of the group came to see this as a misnomer, like calling a mountain of a man “Tiny.”

It wasn’t a hard hike but for the novices of the group, it was like death. Breathing and putting one foot in front of the other became unimaginable. Why would anyone do this? And for fun?

But another participant found himself connecting the lessons of the hike to the abstract lessons they were learning in the other segments of the leadership program. Clearly, the hike was one moment in time but he and all those around him struggling to take another step could see that it was everything that came before that hike that determined how the hike itself would play out. It was the choices in our every day, the choice to walk instead of ride a car, the choice to eat a little better, the choice to occasionally take a run that played out at that moment on the edge of a steep cliff.

Later, he reflected on how clearly that hike was such an amazing metaphor for life. Those who were prepared – not just physically but also mentally – got through the challenge and were better for it. They even seemed to relish the challenges and, amazingly, were helping others around them along the way. Those who had simply jumped in, unprepared but also alarmingly confident got the worst of it: their spirits and bodies were crushed by the overwhelming reality of their current state. They weren’t ready in mind or body.

And so, he vowed to be ready the next time. Not just for the next climb but for the next challenge that life might throw his way. He would be ready to look at it as his lucky day, his time to test his mettle. His time to grow.

In the next year, he started to plan his days and weeks out a little differently. He made small changes and goals to start. First, he simply challenged himself to stop riding his car to school; he could walk when the weather was fine. Then, he started to jog. And jogging became running, not only when he had to get somewhere but because running became something he liked to do.

Soon he began to feel that this wasn’t enough and so he started to research what he should be eating. What he might do to improve his sleep, his run time, his breathing. He started to check his pulse and well as his habit of grabbing buttered popcorn as he headed for the couch at the end of a stressful day.

Gradually, with his mind always on the adventure hike, he started to seek out harder physical challenges. Was there a mountain nearby where he might test himself? Would going with a buddy help him to focus on helping others rather than his own discomfort?

His friends and family were amazed at his transformation, even while it literally happened before their eyes. His sleep improved, his grades went from a smattering of Cs and some “half-moons” to the top of his class. He started to get involved in extracurricular activities that he had never professed to have any interest in.

It all started in the startlingly realization on his first adventure hike. He saw himself and saw that he had something he wanted to achieve. And he saw that it would be achieved not in that moment but in the process or quest to achieve that one, big audacious goal. In fact, it was that the victory was in the transformation of his life that all started from one choice at a time.

Have you ever had such an experience?

Life Stages: Growing from an Individual to a Family

Life Stages: Growing from an Individual to a Family

Taking a family outing compared to trip by yourself might  be comparable to the difference between spiritual growth as an individual and as a family.

A trip where you’re responsible for only yourself is easier to prepare and plan for, just as focusing on your own growth and development is less complicated than having to consider the needs of all the members of the family.

Even just preparing to head out for any activity is immensely complicated with your family in tow. If you have multiple kids, questions that might run through your mind might include:

“How many changes of kids’ clothes will I need?”

“Should the kids bring their own bags or no?”

“Vests or jackets?”

“Is he old enough that he won’t need an extra pair of underwear?”

“Will this snack be enough to keep them quiet on the ride over?”

“Three diapers or four?”

“Should I bring a carrier or a stroller or both?”

“Will the stroller fit in a coin locker if I don’t need it?”

“Will she sit in the stroller?”

“Throw up bags?”

“Stickers? Crayons?”

…along with a million other considerations.

Whereas heading out the door by yourself might be more along the lines of:

“Phone? Wallet? Keys?”

From Dependence to Independence

Despite these and many other complications, there is something to be said about the messiness and discomfort of having to think about more than one’s self. And perhaps this speaks to God’s design.

We all start out as babies, completely dependent on those around us. Our choices are, at first, not our own as our parents make them for us and may or may not give us varying levels of independence as we grow. But no matter how we are raised, we eventually go through a process through which we must become independent, autonomous adults.

Just as our bodies need to go through a period of maturation and growth in order to create human life, our spirits need to do the same. Much of this process of maturation can happen on the individual level but, at a certain point, our spiritual growth and development hinges on our ability to go on to a higher and deeper levels wherein we need to begin to consider ourselves as part of a bigger whole.

Becoming Part of a Bigger Whole

When we become part of a couple, we then come to reflect God’s divine image in the sacred union of a man and woman. As a couple, we need to consider the needs and desires of the other person. As parents, we need to consider the growth, education and development of our children, one another and the family as a whole. Later, as adult children, we begin to need to consider the needs of our elderly parents.

It is in the critical period of youth where we begin to make all the choices and habits that then sets the trajectory for our whole lives. This is the period where we are no longer tied to our mother’s “apron strings” and begin to make the decisions that will determine who we will become in life. It is at this juncture that, if we’re able to have a clear purpose and direction, we can make the choices that allow us to fulfill our God-given potential, to have fulfilling and meaningful relationships at home and at work.

Preparing for the Next Stage

All this starts from knowing both where we come from and where we want to go!

If — even in the period of our flourishing independence — we clearly know our identity as sons and daughters of God and His purpose for us, it makes it so much easier. Put simply, it cuts away the confusion and fumbling that is often associated with adolescence. Instead of searching for meaning and purpose, we can direct our energies into positive pursuits towards fulfilling our God-given potential. We can then also focus on how and in what ways we would enter back into a web of interdependence, in preparation for building our own families in the future.

Knowing and understanding the importance of these natural life stages as being part of God’s grand plan for our personal, spiritual growth and development is essential to guide us towards good choices and habits in our lives. And how lovely is it that the process of our growth is in one that can also bring us so much satisfaction and delight?

So, whatever stage you might be in – how are you growing? What would you like to work on?

One Step at a Time – Oh, and Focus on Your Breathing

One Step at a Time – Oh, and Focus on Your Breathing

The summit looked so far as it played peek-a-boo through the morning mist.

It always did at the start of the journey.

But Ken was experienced enough to know that if you kept looking up at the summit, it was easy to get discouraged.

The point was to start, one step at a time.

So, he took a deep breath of the crisp morning air. It filled his lungs. He could almost feel the clean oxygen moving into his muscles, invigorating them as he took his first steps of the day. He breathed out, making room to take in whatever lay before him.

He wasn’t starting blind. He knew the day would be hard. That peak was high, and he’d scaled enough mountains to know that it would be no easy ride. But his mind was set, he and his team had decided that they would reach the summit today.

With that resolve he set out towards the goal, step by step.

Some steps were harder than others.

Starting out on level ground, the steps came easy. Placing one foot in front of the other, he had enough extra energy to look around, appreciate the grass, the trees, the occasional small critter that scurried by, even exchange a few words with his teammates.

As the incline grew, he could feel the strain on his muscles.

At times, even placing one foot in front of the other pushed his limits. He enlisted extra support from his arms as they pushed against his walking sticks to pull his weight up against the pull of gravity. Sweat drenched the collar of his jacket and the rim of his cap. No one was talking anymore.

When you are going up, it only gets harder as you get closer to your goal.

As his body cried for relief, and even his mind tried to break free from the commitment of reaching the top, he found focus in a surprising place: his breathing.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

Even when everything wanted to give in and give up, he could focus on keeping up this small, consistent act.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

Just as his first deep breath in the morning, he could feel his breathing keep the rest of his struggling system oxygenated.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

As he kept control of his breathing, the rest of his body fell into rhythm with his breath, almost like cruise control.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

His mind calmed down and also fell into the rhythm of taking in, and giving out. He began again to see the world around him, the fresh air, the small vegetation, the shale on the side of the mountain. Only now he saw them clearer, he saw the relationships that tied everything together, including his presence.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

He heart began to swell with gratitude and wonderment of God’s design of the world as he witnessed how everything was created to thrive in relationship to each other, giving and receiving, just like his breath. This gratitude energized him, opened new sources of energy as he picked up the pace on the final stretch.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

He put his final steps down as they reached the top of the mountain and the valley opened below.

Ironically, the view revealed all the other peaks that they could challenge if they decided to.

He took another deep breath, taking in the beauty of the scene. As he released his breath, smile broke his face. They had done it, one step at a time, sustained by his breathing.

Back from the mountain, his experience remains as a powerful reminder that he can take on any peak. But when things get tough, or look intimidating from ground level, he knows to start with the first steps forward – and focus on his breathing.

Facing Your True Self in Nature

Facing Your True Self in Nature

College students and young adults from across the United States traveled to the wilderness of Montana to participate in an outdoor workshop in September. This is a story from a participant, sharing what he learned from his experience in nature.

With thirty pounds of stuffed packs laying around us, we gathered near the trailhead to discuss the logistics of our upcoming journey.

“Who would like to volunteer to lead the trail today?” Our leader spoke up. A moment of silence followed.

“I can.”

I felt the pressure of the demanding position, but I wanted to challenge myself to break out of my shyness.

Our adventure program included five days and four nights of hiking. At the beginning of each day we took on responsibilities for specific roles and I had just volunteered for my first position: trail lead. Trail lead had three main tasks: reading a map to keep the group on the right path, controlling the pace and organizing the rest periods. Such tasks were important to get everyone to the destination on time to set up a camp and have a meal before sundown.

Backpacking through burnt trees.

Our journey upwards was peaceful without very many encounters with other hikers. We climbed up and down the trails surrounded by beautiful evergreens and refreshing creeks. Although we encountered barren hills, spiked with burnt trees, and even as swirls of ashes troubled our eyes and nose, such struggles were rewarded with the wondrous scenery of the lake shining under the sun.

Even with all the peace and beauty of nature that surrounded us, I often struggled from the discomfort that came with the responsibilities of my role. Stemming from my shyness, I continuously faced a weakness that I knew all too well — my fear of making mistakes.

I was unfamiliar with the tasks of my assigned role, including how to read a map. As a result, I found myself doing the bare minimum. Although I was able to avoid making big mistakes, I soon became consumed by a sense of defeat that followed my escape from the challenge.

Such an experience was difficult for me personally. However, looking back, I now realize that such a challenge was precisely the gift that nature offered, presenting me with the opportunity to identify and observe my weaknesses.

In my daily life, surrounded by flashy technology, busy schedules, and social interactions, it is easy for me to ignore the flaws in my character that hold me back. Making excuses was easy in such an environment filled with distractions.

“I can forget about it for now.”

“I have more important things to do.”

This constant delay in solving my problems led to negative emotions that I avoided by watching TV-shows and playing video games.

But, such tricks don’t work in nature.

When I was having a difficult time confronting my weaknesses, I couldn’t rely on a YouTube video and my favorite snack to distract myself. Instead, I had no choice but to face myself. The purity and simplicity of nature were such that I had to face my flaws and that helped me to set a sincere determination to overcome them. I came away on that day with a deeper understanding of myself.

College students hiking on the Continental Divide trail.

Nature can be a perfect place to evaluate ourselves clearly because it pushes us to reveal our weaknesses and limitations.

The physical hardship from relentless hours of hiking in hunger, cold wind and burning sunlight will bring discomfort; this reveals to us our true limitations in our interactions with ourselves and others.

And with the lack of distractions and excuses, nature can provide us with the great opportunity to have a more effective attitude in solving our problems, motivating us to change.

When I was complacent in my daily routine and stuck in my negative emotions, a week-long hike in the wilderness became an opportunity for self-evaluation to identify problems and offer solutions to the problems that kept me stuck. The time in nature filled with challenges and a peaceful environment became a great school for learning and spiritual growth.

Reflective Leaders Raise the Bar and Achieve Goals

Reflective Leaders Raise the Bar and Achieve Goals

The process of learning from our mistakes is an essential part of growth and development. This applies no matter what age you are and whatever career you pursue. Whether a student or follower and especially as a teacher or leader, self-reflection is a process that nurtures us to grow mentally and spiritually.

But how many people actually want to set aside time for reflection? The process is not an easy one. For some people, they don’t like what they may view as a slow, time-consuming process. Some just don’t like what they see. It is far easier to acknowledge our strengths than address our weaknesses. Instead of becoming too defensive, we can acknowledge our weaknesses, bring a positive attitude to the table, and understand the lessons to be learned. This is how change and growth happens. We have the power to reframe a mindset of being judged for our weakness into a positive mindset of growth and the opportunity to be better.

Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan in July 1888

Teachers especially can attest to the importance of reflection in order to address the needs of their students. Good teachers are good at reflecting; they are good learners. Anne Sullivan was a young but bright and ambitious teacher. At only twenty years of age, she would become the teacher of the famous Helen Keller, a deaf and blind child who would go on to be the first deaf-blind person to receive a bachelor of arts degree, becoming an author, world-famous speaker, and political activist. Helen was a stubborn and difficult child but the reflective process of her teacher would prove to be an essential part of her achievements later in life.

Sullivan herself was visually impaired, but her determination and ability to reflect on her methods meant that she would be able to make significant breakthroughs with the confused and frustrated child. She described a pivotal moment in her teaching experience and sent her reflection to a friend in the form of a letter.

Sullivan had been working to find a solution to a frustrating problem for Helen who was struggling to understand the words “mug” and “milk,” often confusing it with the verb “drink.” Helen didn’t even know the word for “drink,” but motioned the act of drinking when she spelled “mug” or “milk.”

One day it dawned on Sullivan to connect the concept of sign language with the physical objects around Helen by having her touch the items with one hand as Sullivan spelled the name of the object in her other hand.

Photo of Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan and Patty Duke as Helen Keller in the broadway play The Miracle Worker. In this scene, Miss Sullivan tries to teach Helen the meaning of “water”.

We went out to the pump-house, and I made Helen hold her mug under the spout while I pumped. As the cold water gushed forth, filling the mug, I spelled “w-a-t-e-r” in Helen’s free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face.

From that point on, Sullivan and her pupil progressed leaps and bounds in teaching the girl how to use Braille and communicate with the world around her. It wasn’t easy. Both student and teacher faced many challenges and frustrations along the way. However, taking that time to reflect instead of constantly, stubbornly pushing in one direction or just giving up, was the conscious, decisive action that made learning possible. It may seem to “slow things down” but looking forward, it actually allowed progress to be made faster, more efficiently, and with fewer tears down the road.

An article by Harvard Business Review said employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day reflecting performed 23% better after 10 days than those who did not reflect. Similarly, a study of commuters in the UK found that those who were prompted to use their commute to think about and plan for their day were “happier, more productive, and less burned out than people who didn’t.”

Put simply, reflection is that pause we take in the chaos of our everyday lives to sort through, acknowledge, and find meaning in our experiences. The time and place we choose to do this may look different for each person but the good news is that there are many ways to make reflection a part of your lifestyle, whether it is in a journal, thinking in the car during your commute, or going out into the best classroom there is: nature.

Do you reflect? If not, how can you start making time for reflection today?