The following response is a contribution from a student at Youth Initiative High School in Viroqua, Wisconsin.
It is only until we have lost (let go of) everything, that we can do anything, and if you’ve got nothing to lose, you can already do everything; you’re off to a good start.
In the summer of 2016, I departed on a three-week journey that changed my life—a journey I will never forget.
Four months beforehand, I got a very excited call from my parents. They informed me of a summer program called the “Montana Wilderness School” in Bozeman, Montana, that takes groups of teenagers out on expeditions into the wilderness: through the woods, up mountains, on rivers, and into canyons. I loved the idea. My parents offered to give me the opportunity to attend one of the expeditions taking place that summer and I did not hesitate to accept. It was a fantastic gift. The plan was a three-week long canoeing expedition down the Missouri River in western Montana. I was to canoe nearly 250 miles in pure, untouched wilderness, learn essential and advanced wilderness skills, take a class and get accredited for Leave-No-Trace (LNT) ethics, take a course and get licensed as a first responder in Wilderness First-Aid (WFA), and all around have an incredible time.
I joined two instructors—one man and one woman, both in their mid-twenties—a guy from France and two girls from Montana. What followed was 21 days of constant sunburn, aching, endless, tiresome (to put it lightly) paddling, awe-inspiring landscapes, seemingly infinite wilderness, humbling wildlife, hours upon hours of deafening silence, starlight, storytelling, and introspection. Social interaction, group collaboration and teamwork building skills, exercising endless patience. On this trip the wrinkles that formed on the tips of my fingers felt like home: I recognized my earth-shattering love and necessity for the presence of wilderness in my life—or rather, my presence in wilderness. I awakened an insatiable physical, emotional, and spiritual craving for big, unaffected nature.
I slowly began to realize that what it really meant to be a human, to me, was to find a purpose related to connection; personal connection with other people, wildlife, nature, and the spiritual world. Furthermore, I understood that the first step to achieving a wholesome understanding of connection to one’s surroundings, and its necessary presence in one’s life is simplicity in the connection to one’s self. In other words, the more time one is able to spend with one’s self, learning, meditating, introspecting, the more one will notice the parallels in nature, and one’s relationship with “it.”
If we have led a successful life, (which frankly, if you think about it, we already lead mostly just by living in the present and being aware of it), we wouldn’t feel overwhelmed or regretful at the end of our lives, assuming we made it to 80 or 90. We would come to terms with the kaleidoscopic nature of reality, or even better, somehow reach a state of peaceful enlightenment in which we are somehow, no longer confused by life. I am confident that toward the end of my time on earth, whenever that may be, I will understand my purpose, I will understand the disastrously complex and yet blissfully order-full nature of life. I don’t quite yet, but that’s why I’m still here. Furthermore, it is my belief that when one dies, one has acquired enough knowledge of the world and of themselves necessary to pass on; that is to say, they have fulfilled their purpose. In other words, when one dies, one knows “everything,” which of course, in these terms is completely subjectively relative—everything, meaning everything one was supposed to be aware of.
One of the main purposes of humanity is to learn that we don’t have to understand everything, that we don’t need to control everything. Even thinking about it lifts a huge weight off my shoulders. It is not our responsibility to control the world, but rather to hold it up. “The Earth does not need us, we need the Earth.” This assumption is incorrect, for there must be a balance. Since every “thing” is connected, every organism needs every other organism in one way or another for stability.
Frankly most of my anxiety comes from feeling like I am not in control. And yet, somehow, the mere realization that I am not in control, in some way, allows me to be in perfect control of what I can be in control of, at least of my life. Letting go of the steering wheel allows one to relax. Almost contradictory, yet I’m certain this is the truth.
Toward the end of our lives, I think it’ll hit us full-force how un-short our lives were. The easiest way to begin paving a meaningful life is to break away from monotony, and the simplest answer to that is to be present as much as possible, constantly. For then, our memories will exercise their purpose, thus smoothing out the image we build of our past by making it all memorable. Then, we will remember a lot more about our life, thus making it seem longer, like more happened—more eventful, un-short. Herein lies the utmost importance of remaining present.