In my junior year of college, after years of California dreaming, I finally headed west by transferring from Rhodes College in Memphis to Westmont College in Santa Barbara. In the weeks leading up to the start of the fall semester, I went on a 14-day backpacking excursion across the Sierra Nevada with about 10 other transfer students. Our fearless leaders included a Westmont professor and several other credentialed guides.
There was no doubt this trip would be challenging. We would be climbing and trekking across some intense terrain, all while carrying a pack that weighed about as much as we did. The elements would be unforgiving and extreme. There would be bears and steep precipices. We would be hungry and stinky. And my mother, always ready with a terrifying story from the “Drama in Real Life” section of her Reader’s Digest magazine, even threw in for good measure the threat of escaped convicts roaming the wilderness.
Long story short, this wasn’t going to be a picnic, but I was excited and welcomed the adventure with open arms. Why? Because it was an exciting challenge. Because I wanted to test my limits. Because I wanted to learn something new. Because I wanted to diversify my life experience. Because I suspected it would contribute to my overall growth as a person. I believe these are some of the very same reasons we choose to come to earth as human beings, which is why I’m sharing this story. But more on that later…
As predicted, the trek was tough. For instance, take the 36-hour solo portion of the trip. For two days and nights, we were each sent off completely alone to a spot in the woods where we had no contact with another human being. We were given only a bear whistle, a sleeping bag, a journal, and iodine tablets to purify our water. That’s it (yes, it was a 36-hour fast, as well).
Later in the trip, our leaders turned the group of us students loose for several days to find our own way through the unmarked wilderness using only a compass and topography maps. We often had no idea if we were heading in the correct direction. Though the adults promised they would monitor us, we never saw them.
In the end, we survived. And I think we all came away proud of what we accomplished, with a sense of empowerment that only comes from pushing one’s limits and witnessing one’s true capabilities.
I took that trip almost 20 years ago. However, it remains a beautiful metaphor for how I see our journey as humans on this planet.
Before I share what I mean by that, however, I invite you to (in the words of Dr. Martha Beck) “bracket up.” Bracketing is a social science method used by anthropologists where they temporarily suspend disbelief in order to study people and things that seem too incredible to believe. For example, say a group of scientists is asked to study a community of people who believe they were direct descendants of Sasquatch. The scientists would put up an imaginary mental bracket and suspend judgment around the community’s claims while they conduct their study. When their research is over, they would close the bracket and use logic and reason to analyze what they had observed. So, I invite you to put those brackets up now if you feel so inclined!
I think once we get here to the planet in a human body, we are all on a sort of journey home, back to where we originated. I’ve heard it said before (and I believe it) that our souls (or higher selves, or meta selves, or whatever your chosen label is) stand in line just in order to spend a lifetime on planet Earth. It’s a bit of a grand experiment around here, what with it being an exciting and crazy planet of free will. I’ll suggest that, just as I knew my backpacking adventure would push my limits, we know going in that life on earth will not always be easy.
But we also know that when it’s all said and done, it will have been well worth it. We will return to that place where our souls exist outside of this limited physical reality (be it heaven, nirvana, another dimension, or simply the other side of the veil – again, go with your own label). In that eternal space, we will carry with us all that we have learned along the way during our lifetime. That wisdom will contribute to the overall advancement of consciousness and the expansion of the one true force that’s running this whole cosmos to begin with: Love.
In between the pre-incarnation excitement and a beautiful return home, however, sh*t may get pretty real while we’re living in these bodies on Earth. We may spend a lot of time wondering what the hell we’re doing here and why we signed up for this gig in the first place, much like the moments of extreme doubt I experienced there in the mountains.
I remember one such moment vividly from my “solo” in the wilderness. It was the middle of the night, I had my sleeping bag zipped over my head to form a protective cocoon from all of the many things I was afraid of back then (including the dark). An animal crawled onto my sleeping bag and attempted to burrow inside. I was paralyzed with fear. Eventually, the animal returned to the underbrush and I survived unscathed.
In the moment, I cursed my decision to willingly subject myself to such an encounter. But once back in civilization, I realized what an amazing learning experience that terrifying moment had been, and I felt pretty damn good about my decision to go on the trip. In fact, I’d say I emerged braver and more ready for any future encounters with man or beast.
There also were definitely times on that trip where I felt utterly alone (both during my solo, as well as when our young group charted its own course for several days without adult assistance). In reality, however, there was never a moment where our professor and guides weren’t monitoring our safety and progress. As we later discovered, they were there all along, applauding our bravery and resourcefulness, and awaiting our reunion at the end to celebrate our success and process all we had learned.
In much the same way, I believe we will all ultimately remember (at least upon death, but possibly before) why we signed up for this trip as humans on this beautiful and crazy planet. Equally important, we will know to the core of our being that it was absolutely worth it, both for our own growth and learning, and for that of the Universe, as well. And just as we students discovered we were never alone, we too are never alone. There are professors and guides and more, seen and unseen, who lovingly follow our journey and provide assistance (but only when asked – remember, this is a planet of free will!).
This point of view may seem too perfect, too Pollyanna, in light of some of the difficult experiences we may face while in human bodies. Extreme poverty. Molestation. Murder. The death of a child. Terrorism. The list is long.
Without minimizing any of these experiences, I would simply suggest that it’s all relative. In the endless stretch of eternity, one human lifetime with all of its ups and downs is just a blip in the grand scheme of things. A beautiful, blessed, vitally important blip, where each lifetime is an absolutely integral piece of the overall tapestry of all existence.
Although my trip often seemed terrifying and never-ending in the moment, it now marks one very small segment in the overall timeline of my life. Similarly, I believe upon death we will review our human lives from the perspective of our higher self, and know that each experience (whether joyful or painful, scary or exhilarating, easy or hard) contributed to our soul’s growth.
In the meantime, you might experience glimpses of remembering who you really are (“spiritual beings having a human experience,” according to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and I agree). But if you sometimes forget, try returning to the metaphor of my journey through the Sierra Nevada.
In other words, how would you approach your life if you knew that 1) you might just have willingly signed up for this whole adventure in the first place, just like signing up for coursework in college; 2) you are never alone, even if you can’t always see your professor and guides around you; and 3) your journey will leave you braver, wiser, and celebrated just by virtue of having shown up for such a courageous adventure?
Even if you don’t agree with my worldview or my metaphors, I would invite you to spend a little time just imagining what your life would be like if my theory were true. How does it feel in your body? And would you do anything differently? This is the reality that I perceive around me. In it, I feel empowered, supported and loved. I hope you do too.