There are a few book titles that are so brilliant that they can stand alone as wise entities unto themselves. One of them is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are. Because indeed, the one thing we can’t leave behind when we go away from home is our own self. This is not to say that external landscapes don’t have impact on internal landscapes—because they do. But a heavy heart and a worried mind can worm their way into any setting eventually. Or as Thoreau said, in Walden, “the fault-finder will find faults even in paradise.”
External shifts can offer much needed respite or distraction or perspective shifts. All of which can be profound and life altering. But external shifts are rarely the full answer to life’s heartaches. I say this as a person who has tried out the “external fix” route to life’s problems dozens of times, only to find that what I was running from was with me all along. Some people learn not to touch the hot stove after one misplaced hand, others of us, need to get burned a few times before we remember the lesson. I fall into the latter category.
Which is why I take comfort in Portia Nelson’s poem, “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters,”
I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost. I am helpless. It isn't my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I still don't see it. I fall in again. I can't believe I am in the same place. It isn't my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it there, I still fall in. It's habit. It's my fault. I know where I am. I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
I walk down a different street
I am recently back from spending two weeks leading a backpacking trip in Wyoming. Mountains in general, and the Wind River Range of Wyoming, in particular, are my happy place. Laughter and joy are easier to access when I am out in the mountains. But even my happy place can’t fully guard against my unique array of “deep holes in the sidewalk.” I re-used a journal this summer from a month long backpacking trip I’d led in 2016. And the journal of my 31 year old self was a fairly accurate emotional map for my 33 year old self, which leads me to believe I’m hovering somewhere between chapters two and three of “An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters.”
One of my old familiar deep holes is grasping for contentment “out there” rather than locating contentment in my current reality. The mountains, with their harsh insistence on staying present, on attending to the needs of the moment are the most helpful teachers I have for seeking contentment in what is in front of me, rather than in what eludes my grasp.
And I’m looking at that old familiar “deep hole” in my life with news eyes as I puzzle over the recent choices my dad has made for his life—the wild external shifts he has made as his bid for happiness. And it lends credence to the idea of emotional baggage becoming the unwanted heirlooms that somehow keep passing from generation to generation.
And I hope that someday, I’ll have learned enough to know that I don’t need to keep falling into the same old hole. That instead, I could walk down a different street.