When I first started thinking about this writing project as more than just something for me, I mentioned it to a mentor of mine. I told him I was writing and had the idea of a blogging but said, “No, I don’t think I can do it.” “Why not?” he asked.
Because there are hard things I’m writing about. Honest things that I don’t usually say to more than the handful of people in my inner circle. My life doesn’t come across as perfectly put together in all these stories. “Ah, it’s vulnerable,” he said. He knows me. And he knows me well enough to know that vulnerability is not my strong suit.
I am a fairly open person about many things. I can laugh at myself and tell stories about dumb things I do. In my work with college students, I’ve found that being honest about my life experiences and mistakes is helpful for them to hear so I’m happy to offer that as part of their learning process. I don’t have many inhibitions when it comes to doing goofy skits at camp and wearing crazy costumes in public (see Exhibit A below).
These things are easy, often because I’m in control of the stories or activities. I get to call the shots and push boundaries I feel comfortable pushing. I can use only the parts of my experiences I think are helpful teachable moments. It’s on my terms and generally about other people. This is totally great.
But if you want to know what I really struggle with? And I can’t make it into a joke or use it as a teaching tool in a safe way? If you want this to be about me? If you want me to ask for help? Yikes. Peace out.
Vulnerability makes me feel out of control and I like to control things, to make things better and function seamlessly. Vulnerability might show my weaknesses and I am pretty adamant about not showing those to the world or asking for help. Vulnerability only happens between certain people and myself… People that I have grown to trust and respect and identify as safe.
So, yes, actually letting people see what I was writing sounded terrible and scary, especially when one of the topics I kept ruminating on was… Yep, vulnerability. Here I go!
I feel fairly confident in my backpacking and survival skills in the wilderness. I’m a trained guide and wilderness first responder. I take calculated risks and try to think through potential scenarios so I don’t end up on the six o’clock news. I typically backpack with people and have a built in support system if something goes wrong. When I guide, I feel the need to be the strong one, the one with the answers, the one who isn’t freaking out when someone gets hurt or the weather turns bad. I stay in control and I don’t let them see if I’m scared or uncertain.
But, essentially, if you’re traveling through the wilderness, everything is out of your control to an extent. Mother Nature doesn’t take your comfort, feelings, and needs into consideration when the weather changes or when a water source you are counting on is dry. You’re left feeling exposed. Solo backpacking especially opens you up to even more situations where you might need to rely on someone and ask for help.
One area that I feel particularly vulnerable in when backpacking is during thunderstorms. I had an experience a few years ago leading a group on a wilderness trip that left me with a love/hate relationship with thunder and lightning. We had a couple close calls . . . Too close. During a massive storm in the middle of the night, I spread out the students into lightening position. A tree was struck near us and I spent the next hour wondering how I would decide which student to do CPR on if multiple people were struck. The weight of responsibility for my students’ lives left me with anxiety. The “what if’s” after the fact left me fearful and not confident in my skills as a guide. The situation also left me acutely aware of how quickly things can change in the backcountry and how out of my control situations can become.
I love thunderstorms if I am watching them from inside my house snuggled up in front of a window. I hate thunder and lightning if I am exposed in the wilderness, lying in my tent wondering who will come perform CPR on me if I get struck. This is what goes through my head at 2 AM as lightning lights up my tent.
(I should say I mostly hate these moments in the wilderness. There is always a part of me that is completely awestruck by the power and magnitude of these storms . . . A reminder of how God created all of this to be part of an incredible, detailed system working together to sustain the world.)
Due to my experiences as described above, this means hiking solo during thunderstorms was not my favorite thing about my time on the PCT. I did it because it was part of the experience, a reality on the trail. I stayed strong and independent, my normal resolve being to prove I didn’t need help or to rely on anyone.
However, one day in July, on a section of trail in northern California, I had enough and vulnerability won.
I had been hiking in and out of other groups, leap frogging with fellow thru hikers, but had been mostly hiking alone for a few days. Not just hiking alone in the sunshine but through about six or seven days of thunder, lightning, and rain. This means I had been hiking for many days feeling nervous in the pit of my stomach, really wanting people around me but not willing to allow others to see my fear.
Earlier that morning I had met a couple from Switzerland. We had started the PCT a day a part but were only just now meeting after 1560 miles. We hiked together for about an hour, chatting the whole time.
I stopped for a snack break on a ridge but my new friends decided to keep going. We said, “Farewell” not knowing if we would ever see each other again. This is part of trail life, running into people and then never seeing them again because you have different schedules, town stops, hiking pace, etc.
As I sat on the ridge, I noticed the clouds in the distance–thunderheads looking miles high and growing darker. I pulled out my phone and turned it on. Much to my surprise I had coverage (a luxury)! I clicked on the weather app and . . . 100% chance of thunderstorms the rest of the afternoon and into the evening.
Nope. I couldn’t do it. Not one more afternoon alone exposed on a ridge with lightning all around me. If I had been hiking with people the past few days I probably would not have hit this “I’m done” moment. I didn’t have many of these moments on the trail but being alone in these storms had been hard. It wasn’t that I wanted to quit the PCT, I just knew I couldn’t do another day like this by myself. I needed people around me this afternoon. I quickly packed up my backpack and started hiking. I wasn’t sure how far ahead the couple from Switzerland was but I was determined to catch up.
I caught them about 45 minutes later. They looked at me, surprised. This is what tumbled quickly out of my mouth, “I’m sorry. I’ve been alone in these thunderstorms the past few days. I don’t like it and they make me nervous. I don’t want to be alone this afternoon. We don’t really know each other but would it be okay if I hiked with you?” There, I said it! I was scared and lonely and asked for help . . . From strangers.
Not only did they welcome me to hike with them, one of them also assured me of her own dislike of the stormy weather we had been having. No judgment. No looking at me like, “Really? You’re 36 and you can’t handle a thunderstorm by yourself?”
We hiked together the rest of that day and the next day. They shared their delicious Swiss chocolate with me and we hitchhiked together into town. We stayed in contact for the remainder of the trail, checking in and finding each other in town stops. They even came through Portland after finishing the PCT and we got to hang out. And, we had some of the best life-giving conversations and I feel like we got there faster simply because I let them in on my secret of feeling alone and afraid.
I don’t know where it came from in my life, but the story I tell myself is that I have to be strong. I shouldn’t show people my weaknesses or uncertainties. That my life needs to look put together and mistakes are a reflection of my failure. Maybe it’s growing up with two older brothers and wanting to always show I could be as tough as them. Perhaps it is because as a woman I feel like I constantly have to prove myself as a capable leader in the workplace. Or possibly that growing up in the church there is so much emphasis on making right choices that I still struggle with the potential of making the “wrong” choice.
If I’m honest it’s a combination of all those things and more. As I have become more aware of my modus operandi, I am working on telling a new story. A story where vulnerability and authenticity become a natural choice. I have seen and experienced the freedom and deep connection that comes when I have the courage to say, “I don’t know”, “I struggle with that, too”, “I made a mistake”, and (insert whatever statement is vulnerable for you). The truth of vulnerability is slowly starting to sink into my heart: freedom, joy, community, growth, self-awareness, and grace. All things I cherish and want in my life more than the appearance of perfection.
Vulnerability is still a daily challenge for me as I step back into life off trail. Am I offering people my authentic self? Am I allowing myself to be fully seen? That’s what I want to do, that’s the goal. And the reminder of how I was shaped on the trail by practicing vulnerability gives me the courage to continue embracing the challenge.
Back to my mentor, who totally pegged why I didn’t want to share publicly what I was writing about. He was one of the people that I asked to give me a quote to memorize for my discipline of study. The quote he chose? Brené Brown’s definition of authenticity from her book Daring Greatly. Perfect for me and my lifelong journey as a recovering strong-willed perfectionist!
I’m going to let Brené bring this blog post home because she says it much better than I do. I’ll only add that vulnerability is worth it. It’s worth the risk and unknown because it brings life and depth and freedom to be authentically you.
“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we are supposed to be and embracing who we are. Choosing authenticity means:
- cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable;
- exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle; and
- nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe we are enough.
Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving – even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we are afraid to let ourselves feel it.
Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude into our lives.”
Cultivate your courage to be vulnerable. Exercise compassion when others are vulnerable with you. Nurture your sense of belonging. May you know the grace, joy, and gratitude that are part of wholehearted living and loving.
If this is a topic you sense you want to dive into a little deeper I encourage you to start by watching Brene Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability. I re-watched it twice in one sitting a couple weeks ago simply because I needed the reminder and motivation to continue on the journey!