What a strange and comforting thing last week to find myself awakening in the same tufted mountains that changed my life three years ago. The differences between that Christian camp of yesteryear and my current youth wilderness therapy program are many, but the pristine setting was the same.
We hiked the second tallest mountain in Georgia one sunrise, and I cried at the impossible beauty of it all. Stood and stared and sighed and shook my head at the three-year journey it’s taken to bring me back.
There’s just something about the Blue Ridge Mountains that looks and sounds and feels right.
It was a good first week with my new job — overwhelming and disorienting at times, but I learned as I went. After a week of no showers and mosquito bites and beans and rice, I’d bonded with eight teenage boys.
They were in the program for all sorts of reasons: social anxiety, drug use, self-harm. Beautiful kids suffering with darkness but striving for light.
I saw slivers of myself in each student, the darkness and the light.
We hiked several miles in seven days, and the hikes weren’t easy. Students and staff alike carried fifty pounds on our backs as we climbed some of the steepest trails I’ve ever trodden.
We stopped for water, and we stopped for snacks and meals. We stopped for breaks and breathers, and for most of us those brief respites fueled us forward.
Most of us.
One kid — let’s call him James — broke down multiple times. On that aforementioned sunrise hike, he dropped his pack hardly five minutes from the summit and sat down, done. We always hike as a group, so the rest of us were forced to stand and wait with him in the waning dark while the sun crept ever so steadily up the mountain rim.
There were antsy feet and groans. There were anxious stares toward the lightening sky and anxious prayers that the sun would please hold while we work our way up on James’ deliberate time.
Eventually, James got going again. We made it to the top with plenty pinkish sunrise to spare.
The hike back down, however, would prove less successful.
We never tell the students how long we’ll be hiking each day or where we’ll be camping each night. We call it “FI,” future information, and it teaches them to live presently and not worry about matters beyond their control.
Well, we’d been hiking for a few hours down the mountain with no campsite in sight, and James had once again had enough. He threw down his pack and sat, this time more pronounced, and this time with the sun rapidly descending. We were losing light fast, and we still needed to set up camp at our yet to be claimed campsite.
James didn’t care. Didn’t “give a shit,” to use his own elegant words.
James was done.
He sat in silence for ten, twenty, thirty minutes, the rest of us urging him to continue onward. Then:
“I’m worthless. I’m pointless. I’m hopeless. I’m pathetic.”
One adjective after another spewed from his mouth, four self-inflicted bullets to the heart. He said he was the worst at hiking, and he didn’t want to take another step forward. The dirt was his domain now.
James struggles with depression, and I saw it more clearly in him than elsewhere before. The reflection he saw of himself in that moment was some inverted image that made four lies his full truth. It was a distorted image so obvious to me, the other staff, even the other kids, but oblivious to James himself.
The longer he sat, the longer he stewed, the longer he convinced himself he had nothing to offer the group, the world, or himself, the more my own heart felt the wounds of his bullets. Looking down at James, I saw an eerie reflection of myself.
I heard words being put to my teenage heart that once locked himself in a bedroom and various bathroom stalls across school and church and camp. It’s a heart that still occasionally beats
Even writing this now, it all seems so silly. C’mon, James. You’re not pointless. You’re not pathetic. You have hope. You have worth. We’re all here for you. Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s just a hike.
And yet so often I could examine my own reflection and stand to tell myself the same exact things. C’mon, Tom. You’re not pointless. You’re not pathetic. You have hope. You have worth. People are here for you. Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s just life.
Hiking doesn’t get me down like it does with James. But so many other things rattle my self-worth:
Writing words that matter.
Integrating into new groups.
Grooming lasting friendships.
Finding my place, my people, my purpose.
Crumpled on the side of a trail, paralyzed by the prospect of a single step forward, I am James. Time and time again, I am some shadowed version of Tom convinced of the mess in the mirror that is straight to me and distorted to everyone else, regardless their words toward me.
And yet for all the mess I am pressed to possess, I stare into the mirror and sense someone else.
I was worth dying for, and thus I am not worthless.
I have been purposed from the womb, and thus I am not pointless.
I’ve been promised a future, and thus I am not hopeless.
I am beloved in the morning, and I am still loved in the evening. Pathetic has been cast to the shadows of sunset.
I am His and He is mine, and it is done.
Hallelujah, it is done.
Do you wrestle with depression or self-worth? How do you overcome and continue hiking?