My bright green study-abroad backpack is covered in Scottish dirt. I could wash it. But I really don’t want to.
Roughly eight months ago, my life felt disastrously complicated, probably more so than it ever had before (did I mention I’m not great at this whole adulthood thing yet?). I’ll avoid details, but just so you know, serious roommate problems, serious best friend problems, and the prospect of leaving the country for four months in the very near future is a dreadful combination of mega-stressers I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. At the time, these things filled my daily existence and dominated my thoughts, in both good ways and bad ways, but mostly bad ways.
Some mornings I woke up feeling physically ill, barely able to roll out of bed. I had to cancel a saxophone lesson to cry alone in my car after I barely made it through a shift at work one day. I lost about 25 pounds during the semester, which is a healthy thing at my weight, but not when you’re practically subsisting off of granola bars, chick-fil-a, and protein shakes.
I prayed a lot. I fasted. I sincerely hoped things would work out the right way, whatever that meant, but in the end I felt so hopelessly helpless. Alone, even. I felt like no one understood my problems, that anyone I could have potentially tried to share them with would be just as lost as I was, which was true. Though I had good friends who listened and offered consolation, no one could tell me what to do. There wasn’t anything to do.
Fast forward several months, and I suddenly became a supremely happy person. Had my problems disappeared? Not at all. But I was able to flee the country and forget about them for awhile. Total blessing, if you ask me.
One particular memory from my travels really sticks out, though. Anyone who’s done any amount of foreign meandering knows that things get stressful. Among the wonderful, amazing, life-altering experiences you’re bound to have, will be times that you wish you could sit in your car and cry alone, but you can’t, because you don’t have a car, and you worry about looking vulnerable in front of the street urchins. Just kidding. Mostly.
This experience took place in Edinburgh. I can’t quite figure out why, but Scotland seems like the perfect location for life-affirming epiphanies. Maybe it’s the bagpipes. Maybe it’s the haggis. All I know is that it’s a wonderful place that’s also bound to stress you out and inspire the crap out of you if you’re prone to things like that.
A group of friends and I decided to spend the morning hiking Arthur’s seat. For those unfamiliar, it’s a mountain that you climb, the tallest overlooking the city, with a little monument on top. It’s pretty non-negotiable itinerary-wise (everyone does it), but it’s best to know exactly what you’re doing when you get to the trail head. Our first mistake: we did not know, at all, what we were doing when we got to the trail head.
So we took the first upward trail we could find. This trail, made of wet overgrown grass and super slick mud, ended up being the worst possible choice, but we carried on, determined to see the top of that mountain.
I made the decision to wear my sole-bare Birkenstocks (mistake number 2), mostly because they were the only shoes I brought, but also because I wanted to channel my inner-German and feel one with nature with nothing but their luxurious natural-cork between the soles of my feet and the good green earth.
So there I was, starting the hike wearing my bright green backpack, light grey pants, ready to conquer the world, when the unthinkable happened. I fell. Before I even knew what was going on, Birkenstock hit mud, Birkenstock slid right through mud, and butt landed on ground, after some impressive air time of course. It didn’t hurt physically, but I felt pretty stupid as a grown adult who couldn’t even handle some wet grass.
But perseverance is key, right? I knew I had to keep going, so I did. No problem. I was a little muddy, but that didn’t matter. I brushed myself off, got my butt up off the ground, and continued up the trail. No point in wallowing.
Before another minute passed, I fell again, even harder. SERIOUSLY?
This time I scraped my hands a bit. This time I didn’t feel so confident. More mud caked onto my pants, now covering my backpack as well, and I went from “awesome” to “sack of despair” almost instantly.
My friends wanted to keep going. I wanted to sit there alone as hot tears began welling up in my eyes, which was potentially even more embarrassing than falling twice in rapid succession. Giving up seemed like the only logical option, because there was just no way I could successfully finish the hike falling every three minutes like this. I would literally die, probably.
But then I realized that I would undoubtedly regret stopping so early on. There are only so many chances one gets to hike up a scenic Scottish mountain. So I got back up, wiped my pants, eyes, and hands yet again, and continued pressing forward even though I really, really, really didn’t want to. At all.
You can probably guess what happened next. I fell. Two more times. And I got back up. Two more times. Luckily I’d gotten better at bracing myself. I figured out the best way to fall, I guess, and didn’t get much muddier, and though my tailbone was probably wondering what kind of point I was trying to make, I didn’t sustain any real injuries.
As we neared the top, I finally, thankfully, realized that I made the right choice. After a brief moment of pseudo-rock-climbing, the breathtaking view revealed to us at the top made every ridiculous fall seem absolutely worth the trouble.
And I felt GREAT. I climbed up to the highest point, breathed in the crisp Scottish air, PRAYED the hike down would be easier, and also just took in the moment. I could do hard things. WITH a butt covered in mud.
Of course I fell twice more on the way down, laughed it off in my adrenaline-induced stupor, and successfully made it back to the hostel to change into my other pair of pants. All in all, I had a great day.
I couldn’t help but equate this experience to the schmaltziest number in The Sound of Music (greatest film ever, by the way). When Maria’s got some problems in her life – an unfortunate nun identity crisis, a crush on Christopher Plummer, love for seven unrelated children, you know how it is – her mother superior sets her straight through song. Her advice is perfect; you’ve got to climb every mountain, ford every stream, and follow every freaking rainbow, ’til you find your dream.
Point being, you don’t even have any idea what your dream is until you’ve been through hell and back to find it. Climbing those mountains in life is what teaches us what we want to strive for, who we want to be. If I hadn’t climbed to Arthur’s Seat, I wouldn’t have ever known that the view from Arthur’s Seat is something I wanted in my life. But now I do, and I’m a better person having seen it.
We need to prepare ourselves for trials we can’t even imagine. I know that. It’s obviously important to approach struggles with optimism, hope, and a good attitude, but it’s also pivotal to realize that sometimes bad, completely unexpected things happen, and we just have to keep going. There is no other choice.
Yes, rely on support from those who’ve experienced the same thing. Pray your heart out. But remember that sometimes life is hard, and that is by necessity. Without the falls, the loss of hope, those times you fall flat onto your butt and all but give up on trying, the view from the top wouldn’t mean nearly as much.
Less than a month after the aforementioned experience, I made my second trip to Arthur’s seat, and of course had an entirely new set of problems. This time, I conquered the beast with a lingering cold and my very jet-lagged mother. We’d had a long day, the sun was setting, and we weren’t even sure if we were up to the challenge. But then I remembered that breathtaking view, that wonderful, euphoric feeling it gave me, of nature and city combining into a beautiful testament of mankind and God working hand in hand – and I knew my mom would have to see it.
First we took a completely wrong trail that led to nowhere. THAT was frustrating. Then we found the right path (not made of grass!) and had to stop every few minutes to catch our breath. I could tell my mom was fading fast. We neared the top, so close that you could see the people, and she told me she was done. Being a mom, she wanted me to keep going and enjoy the view for her. The peak looked farther than it actually was, and I tried telling her that. I said we’d be at the top in less than five minutes, but I’m not sure she believed me.
We stopped for a moment, and I saw that familiar look on her face – that “I really, really, really don’t want to do this” look. And I couldn’t blame her. I’d been there before. I knew how hard it was. I just hoped that she would hear me out, that it really was so close, that the climb truly would be worth it.
With a little more prodding, I’m proud to say that we kept going, together. We climbed that mountain, and as I held her hand, helping her up to the top, I watched as happy tears entered her eyes the moment she realized what she almost missed out on. I was so proud of her and her amazing example of perseverance!
On our way down, we saw the sun set over the Scottish monuments in one of those special travel-is-worth-it moments.
After all this great life-changing stuff and more, I begrudgingly came back home to America, where trials old and new awaited me. Nothing could have prepared me for reverse culture shock, my earnest insatiable desire for real pub food, or the sincere, desperate yearning to associate with British people again. To this day, nearly three months after returning home, I still ache on a roughly-hourly basis for my exciting, travel-focused life. As blessed as I am to have my job and my school in Utah, my heart still lives in Britain, and that’s more of a trial than I was ready for.
Also, there’s still drama in my life from 8 months ago, because sometimes life is like that and won’t cut you a break, even after you’ve learned your lesson.
Then I finally realized a new life lesson on TOP of all those other life lessons: often, trials don’t disappear. They stay there permanently, maybe haunting us, maybe keeping us from reaching our full potential – but it’s the changes in you that make a difference. Problems probably won’t go away. Lost things aren’t always found. Relationships don’t always fit back together in the way you hope, but you learn, and you grow, and you work through it.
Though I still worry about some of those problems that bothered me last Winter, I now have the confidence that everything will be okay if things get that dicey again (which, duh, of course they will). I can make it through difficult times. I don’t know where these difficult times will lead me, but I know that if I keep going, helping others keep going along the way, I will be blessed with the top of that mountain and the perspective that comes with it. I will learn things that were wholly inaccessible to me before, not in spite of, but because of every unexpected mountain, stream, and rainbow that decides to grace my presence.
That literal mountain was EASY the second time. Maybe my figurative mountains will be too.