Wilderness is not just a place; it is also a state of being. If happiness means being happy and sadness means being sad, then wilderness means being wilder. Look it up, and you’ll find that the primary meaning of wild is “natural.” In turn, natural comes from the Latin nasci, meaning “to be born.” Words like natal, nativity and native come from the same root, all referring to birth. Wilderness, then, is not only the nature you find outdoors. It can also refer to your own true Nature–the You that is closest to your birth. This inner wilderness is the untamed truth of who you really are.
Gerald G. May
The Wisdom of Wilderness: Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature
In the season of Lent, we often begin with the story of Jesus in the wilderness–fasting and denouncing the temptations of an evil source. I imagine we typically consider the “wilderness” of this story as a place–an environment filled with nature, perhaps rocky ground or low growing shrubs. A place that overgrown and left to its own devices. Perhaps as Jesus journeyed through this area, he had to push back branches or bandage scrapes on his body.
It was a place unknown to him.
But what if we also consider this “wilderness” to be the place that Gerald May references–“the untamed truth of who you really are.” We don’t necessarily need to seek out foreign land or a remote destination to experience our own true Nature; rather, it is in the day-to-day struggle with ourselves, with others, or even with our Creator that offer us deeper insight into who we are.
One summer when I was in college, my aunt, uncle, Mom, Dad and I decided to take a hike. Now, while they were all active people, I had never known any of them to take an extended journey on a trail through woods in or around mountains.
My uncle borrowed one of my trail books for the Blue Ridge Parkway, and in all of his humor, decided we would conquer the Big Butt trail.
In order to “succeed,” we would park a car at one end then drive up on the BRP to start at the trailhead there. We all set out in summer clothes, hiking shoes, and a few snacks for our highly anticipated adventure.
It was amazing, simply spectacular. We descended on switchbacks through a pine forest to arrive at a ridge filled with ripe blueberries. The sun basked on our faces, and we marveled at God’s creation, appreciating this special time together.
As we trekked along further, we found ourselves standing in the middle of a field of wildflowers. Dad and Uncle David pulled out the guide to check on the next leg of the trip. You see, in spite of walking the periphery of the meadow to search for a marked trail, we could find none. After several minutes, we all agreed that although we’d come more than half way, it would be safer to turn and head back rather than get lost. It would mean another couple of hours of hiking out, but we all agreed it was what we needed to do.
Not long into our journey back, the sky grew ominously dark, and by “dark,’ I don’t mean “cloudy.” Without saying a word, I could feel us pick up the pace a bit. I have no doubt that we were all secretly hoping we’d make it back before any rain fell, but to our dismay, that was not the case.
Without warning, the clouds opened up and pelted us with large drops of rain. At that moment, we each entered the wilderness.
For the next two hours, I observed my mom and aunt struggle with climbing up the trail that we had descended so easily. Soaked and tired, they held onto each other and offered support, physically and emotionally. My uncle and father agreed that my father should run ahead and get back to the car to leave a note on it in case a ranger came by. I never heard the full conversation, but my perception was that they thought my mom or aunt might need assistance.
My uncle and I did the best we could to provide respite to my mother and aunt by making them walking sticks or letting them lean on us as we hiked. Eventually, however, they all three agreed that I should go on and wait at to the car.
I remember in that moment the sadness and pain I felt. While I knew in my head that we’d all be fine and arrive safely back home, my heart struggled with leaving them in this state of physical deterioration.
As an adult, I now realize that in the midst of their wilderness, their concern for me demonstrated selflessness. Their true nature was not born of the ego-based self, it was born of a higher power–love.
While I reflected last night on Gerald May’s insight into our personal wilderness, I wondered about my own untamed truth, the person I was born to be and the person I will become as I continue to grow more deeply in relationship with my Maker.
Just like darkness, wilderness seems to carry with it a negative connotation. My prayer is that we appreciate it for what it is–a gift of insight into the person God knows each of us to be.