Experiencing God’s love while living alone has not been some walk in a national park. It was the Mojave desert. It was the Alaskan wilderness. This time a year ago, I was just completing a weeklong stay at a mental wellness recovery center – Wellness, for short – to address a serious bout with depression. I was in trouble, and my therapist helped me take the necessary steps to check myself in.
In my journal that first day, I wrote:
Checked in. Feeling awkward. Out of place. … the idea of caring for my feelings is foreign, almost sinful and odd. Like a shoe that doesn’t fit. Like a need linked to weakness that I should be able to overcome.
My go-to scriptures seem hollow, lifeless. The independence of this season is uncomfortable, weird. I’ve built my life around others. Entwined, seemingly permanently. It feels like I’m violating something; Joe, the kids, the vow, the onlookers and admirers; my own values, goals, and dreams.
Short term, I need to know my value, my worth, and worthiness to be alive, to enjoy living, to be free and feel free; to laugh; to receive. But I don’t have a fun gene. What do I like? What makes me laugh?
These basic questions about identity, worth, and joy were front, center, and prioritized for the first time in my life. My time at Wellness, away from work and cell phones, while attending daily sessions on mindfulness, movement, and behavior therapy was transformative. But sure, it was also humbling to know I needed to be in a facility with others who were also struggling, like the twenty-something whose long sleeves hid an armful of scars. She had a prior stint at Wellness and was known by the staff who treated us all with care.
Between organized sessions there was plenty of time to decompress. At the urging of my family, I searched the bookshelves for fiction. “You need to cleanse your palate,” offered my son, who knew that my heart and work life were linked deeply to watching the news, absorbed in current events and problem solving. Topics of race and justice tended to dominate my reading list. Fiction felt like a waste of time, but all I had that week was time. I found Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. It was not fiction, but it was a story. It would have to do.
If you’re unfamiliar with the plot:
“In April, 1992, a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, a party of moose hunters found his decomposed body. How McCandless came to die is the unforgettable story of Into the Wild.
Immediately after graduating from college in 1991, McCandless had roamed through the West and Southwest on a vision quest like those made by his heroes Jack London and John Muir. In the Mojave Desert he abandoned his car, stripped it of its license plates, and burned all of his cash. He would give himself a new name, Alexander Supertramp, and, unencumbered by money and belongings, he would be free to wallow in the raw, unfiltered experiences that nature presented. Craving a blank spot on the map, McCandless simply threw away the maps. Leaving behind his desperate parents and sister, he vanished into the wild.” (goodreads.com)
While I had always known this general storyline, I had never read the book, and I certainly didn’t expect to see myself in it. But I did. I was Chris McCandless except my wild ambitions were spiritual. When I decided to live for Christ, I was an extremist. I turned my back on my past life and embraced the spiritual wilderness of trusting God for everything, even when I was putting my literal life at risk.
I did this not just because I had joined a strict religious sect. There was something in me that was drawn to legalistic and narrow practices. It wasn’t all misguided, of course. I have told many friends that if I had not chosen marriage, I would have been a nun. I was just that spiritually passionate; but also wild and gullible, like Chris. I had a good heart, like Chris. I was philanthropic and I valued simplicity and purity. I saw Christianity, and especially Christian marriage, as a tamable wilderness to be conquered with few natural provisions. I often told Joe I thought I was a little crazy. A bit of a spiritual nut. I was Chris.
Just a few weeks before my time at Wellness, I had written in my journal:
March 3: I question the ways I worshipped before now. All of my dreams and impressions. What if they weren’t the Spirit of God guiding me? All of my hours in scritpure, prayer, and journaling feel empty now. If it’s possible to be extreme and cause pain to myself and others; to mislead and be misled, why bother? Why try to believe in a soul anchor if it’s still uncertain and we are all just guessing? I definitely feel lost without the prior framework. But I obviously didn’t have a proper balance between certainty and faith. Between my humanity and the Spirit realm. Maybe I was cocky.”
March 6: All I ever tried to do was live as Christ. To live with a clean conscience. I expected better outcomes… but this is my cup of suffering to drink because of that choice. And there is still mystery about the future. This has been the trail all along. Uncertainty. I really hate it. Some things are uncertain.
March 13: Why does my faith feel less real now than before? For so long, I felt ultra devoted and deep and spiritual. So in touch with God and Christ and the Holy Spirit. In awe of scripture, committed to church. Right now, I feel very little of that. Why?
March 15: I miss the fire I once had for scripture, but I am fairly numb when I read it now.
March 19: There’s a defeat I have to accept. I fought. I ran. I wrestled. I prayed. I can’t resist this truth any longer… There’s something in me that hates me for being here, allowing this, being stupid… I wish I could be in the hospital.
Like Chris, I ran up against the mystery and uncertainty of God. His creation – the natural world and the spiritual world – cannot be tamed nor mastered, no matter how ambitious and well-intended we may be. Unlike me, Chris was unable to escape. From his journal:
Not long after he wrote these words, he was dead.
I, on the other hand, walked out of a wilderness when I left Wellness:
March 30: So I’m not starving to death. I’m alive and I can recover. I can walk ouf ot he wilderness having learned some lessons about how to protect myself from the [spiritual] elements and dangers. I have to assemble my own gear. Nobody can do that for me or carry my pack.
This time of separation is an opportunity to determine what I need for my own survival. It also is a time to tame my ambitions. God created me to serve and live with passion and zeal. I just haven’t understood self-love. Love of self is a gift from God. Embrace it. Thank God for this provision designed to protect you from exploitation.
March 31: Lord, forgive me for sustaining Eve within. This perfectionism. This desire to know as you know. Help me to embrace my broken and human frame. Help me to honor the Spirit’s call to love, help, and serve myself; to see my own weakness and need for care. Only then can I extend proper love, help, and service to others who are broken like me.
To embrace weakness is to honor God… There’s nothing wrong with me. I am sane, smart, and loyal.
April 1: I leave Wellness today better than when I arrived. Thank you Lord for this time away. For giving me strength and wisdom to ask for help. For teaching me self-compassion. For affirming my wild faith and grounding me again spiritually. I have much to live for and look forward to, some of it unknown. But I am capable and healthy enough to chart a course. I am worthy.
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