In my last post, I talked about three unhealthy ways we run from pain (each ways that I have personally championed!). I promised that I would explain something I have recently experienced… the purpose of pain. I promise I’ll get to that in my next post. But I want to tell you a story first. It relates to pain and depression. Hang in there for a moment.
When I was young, I had a place I called simply, “My Hill”. My Hill was my escape. It was my getaway. It was a place of hope and healing, of deep thought and desperate screams. It was a place where I cried, read, and journaled. My Hill was the place I first learned about dealing with pain.
I remember getting rejected by a girl I liked for three years. At fifteen years old, I thought it would destroy my future. I couldn’t imagine a life without that girl. It seems silly now, but at the time it was my whole world. There’s nothing that can calm a first love; nothing that can heal a yearning heart.
I remember going through the teenage fights with my parents. I think every kid goes through it, but that knowledge doesn’t help when you’re a teenager. The feeling that your parents don’t understand what you’re going through and don’t approve of what you’re doing aches in a deep place. No matter how much you deny it, you’re wired to care deeply what your parents think. Much of the teenage years is a vain attempt to prove otherwise.
I remember feeling like I was the worst kid in the world. I lied, snuck around, watched pornography, masturbated, and so much more. Of course, I wasn’t the first kid to do any of these things, by far. But I didn’t realize that at the time. Everything felt heavy; a weight on my young shoulders. So I lived with the pain of not being the person I believed I was “supposed” to be.
Almost every day, I would go to My Hill. It was in the middle of a beautiful meadow that stretched for miles. No one was ever there, and I was able to stand on My Hill and close my eyes as the wind blew gently on my face.
My Hill was my escape. I could gaze down on the woods and feel very tall, as I overlooked an endless sea of trees. I also felt small. I was just a tiny boy in a great big world. My problems seemed immense when I was within the four walls of a house. But out in the Great Outdoors, my problems had space to breathe. They weren’t so large after all.
Four-walled rooms are tiny places to trap problems. Pain isn’t meant to be contained in such small spaces. The Outdoors has much more space to understand pain.
A 2015 Stanford study discovered that walking in nature can lead to a lower risk of depression. I didn’t need a study to discover this. I only needed My Hill.
A few days ago, I got together with my sister. We decided to take a walk and climb a tree. It’s been a while since I’ve been up a tree, and I’ve been dealing with some back problems.
I tell my little sisters stories about the dreaded “Adult Voice” they will grow when they get older. The Adult Voice says things like, “that’s too high”, “you could get hurt”, “it’s too cold out there”, “that sounds like too much work”, and “wouldn’t you rather watch TV?”
“The goal,” I explained to them, “is to squash the Adult Voice every chance you get. Sometimes you have to listen to it, like when it says that it’s time to go to work. But it will try to make you into a safe, boring person who doesn’t have any fun. The Adult Voice will try to take away your imagination and make your life predictible. Don’t listen to it.”
I could hear the Adult Voice ringing in my ears as we started to climb the tree. It was a gnarled old tree that was very high. It was not convenient at all—to get up to the first decent set of branches, you had to plant your feet on different sides of the fork in the trunk, hug one of the branches, and shimmy upward. It was incredibly clumsy.
Once I got fifteen feet up, I felt a bit dizzy. Most people see me as a wild and crazy person who will do anything. But what they don’t know is that I hear The Adult Voice strongly.
“Get down and go inside,” it said.
“No,” I said, “we need an adventure.”
That’s when I jumped up a branch and bypassed my sister, climbing higher and higher up the tree. She laughed and followed.
We sat in the top of the tree for a few minutes, talking and laughing. Branches snaked together to make perfect seats. The day was a bit chilly (it was January in Michigan, after all), but the view from the treetop was beautiful, and there was something powerful about swaying in the tree’s branches.
After about ten minutes, we climbed haphazardly back down, laughing all the way. That’s when we started talking about how happy nature made us.
“Every time I go outside, I think to myself, ‘why don’t I do this more often?’” my sister observed.
“I know. It’s getting out there that’s the hard part. You just want to stay inside. But then once you get outside, you’re like, ‘why don’t I go outside every chance I get’?” I replied.
And that’s just it. It’s tempting to stay inside, with four walls around you, in a castle of your own importance. But there’s nothing like getting outside to realize the enormity of the universe and the beauty of its design.
For me, dealing with depression has been well aided by the outdoors. It’s counter-cultural at this point. It’s easier to stay inside and turn on another flickering light. Computers, tablets, smartphones, televisions. They pull us in and beg us to stay with them.
Most things in life worth doing are difficult at first. But Newton’s First Law of motion rings true. Inertia is something we have to exert willpower to gain. Once we’re moving, things are much easier.
We need to take time to get back to our natural environment… it’s there that we can truly find ourselves. I’m so thankful for My Hill, and for the tree my sister and I climbed, and for the park that I walked in yesterday. Take the time to experience the wonder of the world… it’s worth it. Push the Adult Voice away, and go outside.