On a recent hike through Montgomery Bell State Park, I was struck by the way the trail was carefully created to offer challenge followed by beauty. I have done this particular hike several times, once getting so lost that I thought I might become an unofficial and very smelly backcountry groundskeeper. Remembering that disorientation, I was keenly aware of my surroundings, and paid attention in a way that I normally don’t.
Nashville had record-breaking rainfall this winter and spring. Although the Appalachian Mountains on Tennessee’s eastern border are famously home to generations of Scotsmen, middle Tennessee recently mirrored Scotland with months of gray rainy days. Walking though the woods, the evidence of the rain was everywhere. Soggy ground sprang under each step, and rivers’ voices were louder than normal as the water rushed past. Tracks of mud were evident as rivulets large and small formed during the most ardent downpours.
Montgomery Bell’s trails are well cared for and defined, but now, because of the rain, there were huge gashes of mud and mulch that crossed the curated paths, at times making it difficult to find the way forward. Heavy rains gorged the earth, scarring thoughtfully laid paths with newly formed trenches that led nowhere. Walking along, it was easy to follow the path of least resistance, to go along with the rain until I realized that once again I had lost my way and wondered off the path and into a ditch.
In my fifth decade, I am often struck by how difficult survival can be. Carefully choosing my steps, searching for the trail’s progress, I considered the many ways we move through life. The act of forward movement can feel impossible sometimes, especially when the best path is unclear. Particularly challenging is the choice to resist the instinct to function out of our most entrenched places. Sometimes it is hard to even recognize when a choice will take us into a ditch or elevate us to higher ground. Like pouring rain that falls, carving deep ravines across a more thoughtfully laid trail, our worst instincts tempt us to leave the best route and instead follow a path leading to our own destruction.
Consider the way we engage with difference. We know by now that we cannot talk with people who come from different walks of life without first recognizing our own bias, remembering that our experiences shape us in meaningful ways, that these experiences are incredibly different, and that in order to walk toward others we should expect to hear new ideas and different perspectives. When we enter into these conversations, it is rather easy to wonder off the curated path, stepping unknowingly onto the rugged path cut through the earth from the many downpours that came before. We say we want to learn something new, but then we hear a different experience, we react badly, and we end up in a ditch, often without even realizing we stepped away from the path created for our own good.
We feel skeptical when another’s experience seems to challenge our understanding of how the world works, and we step into the ditch.
We feel attacked by the hard reality someone else lives, and we step into the ditch.
We feel exhausted by the effort it takes to keep moving forward in awkward conversations, and we step into the ditch.
We feel defensive when we hear the unfamiliar perspective of another, and we step into the ditch.
We feel confused and alienated when we perceive that “normal” for others is wildly unfamiliar for us, and we step into the ditch.
Like accumulating water, gathering into franticly formed streams, we look for the path of least resistance. As spontaneously formed rivers cut a new path that leads nowhere, the meaningful path becomes harder to discern, until one day it is hard to see at all. Our interactions are like that. The more we follow our instincts, defensive and touchy, easily offended and looking for a way to escape the discomfort that comes with reaching across lines of difference, the more we find ourselves on the unstable ground of recently moved earth. We look up to see we are in a ravine—with like minded others—trapped in a dead end and far from a path made for many feet.
When we follow our worst instincts, we lose our bearings, and eventually, our hope, finding ourselves in a muddy ditch rather than on a path toward a clearing where we can share ideas and form a society with room for all. However, when we keep our footing and avoid the destructive streams rushing by, we quickly recognize that engaging with others who experience the world differently inspires our own curiosity, increasing our capacity for mystery, humility and wonder. It becomes obvious that the carefully laid path is the one that leads to wonder, to curiosity, to walking with another person who stands in their own shoes and interacts with the world differently than you do.
Walking on the shared path is difficult, and requires a deep focus on context, on orienting ourselves to our surroundings. It requires us to step over small currents that can sweep us away, to maintain our bearings, to choose our steps—and words—wisely. It requires skill that can be honed and strengthened. We can get better at this! It begins with a commitment to notice the rivulets, to observe how they end, and to choose instead to keep walking on the path toward a clearing.
How easily we stumble onto the path of least resistance, haphazardly created by a downpour. The rains will keep coming, and the way forward will continue to be obscured by destructive habits. A better way is to slowly walk the trail meant to take us through challenging terrain with others, but ultimately, toward beauty.