Climb Every Mountain

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.

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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!

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Even better the second time!

On our way down, we saw the sun set over the Scottish monuments in one of those special travel-is-worth-it moments.

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THIS is why you climb every mountain and ford every stream.

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.

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Confessions of an Adolescent Bully

This post isn’t easy for me to write. It involves regretful incidents in my past, and embarrassing naivety. I’ll be attempting to explain things that no one talks about, things that very few people who haven’t “been there” would understand, at the risk of sounding like an absolute tool.

We live in an era focused on victims, telling their stories and inciting sympathy for those who have been hurt and wronged; but I wasn’t a victim. As much as I aim to support those who’ve been wronged, as much as I want to share my love with schoolkids who are attacked by bullies or otherwise, it would be dishonest of me to pretend I wasn’t ever part of the problem.

Look! I’m like 12 and really cute! But also, capable of some pretty terrible things.

I wasn’t a particularly nice person in middle school. Sure, I did what kids that age are supposed to do – I did well in my classes, (mostly) respected my elders, went to church every Sunday. I didn’t skip school, joined the swim team, felt relatively social, and had an air of absolute confidence that even my current 20-year-old self envies. I didn’t have any major, out-of-control problems in my college-educated-two-parent household, and I had every reason to be a good kid.

Strength meant everything to me as I grew up, especially when that involuntary bombardment of pubescent insecurities hit somewhere toward the end of sixth grade. I didn’t understand the emotional changes I was going through, and turned to my own preexisting strengths in an attempt to combat them. I found this strength in good places: my friends and my intellectual skills, my literal, physical strength – I beat out an entire P.E. class in arm wrestling, boys included –  and my family.

But I also learned to leech strength from others, to pick on the obvious targets to become empowered in my social circle and feel better about myself.

Part of my “okayness” with all this is that I had never been much of a victim. I’m ridiculously stoic, and from the time I heard that Andy from my 4th grade class called me a fat ogre, I knew how to put any potential bullies in their place, intuitively. It’s nothing anyone ever taught me; I just knew when enough was enough.

“I heard you called me an ogre, and that’s not a nice thing to do. Don’t do that anymore, okay?”

“All right,” Andy replied with a shrug, running off to the monkey bars.

When I heard the bratty seventh grade girls in the hallway giggle and say that I looked like a marshmallow in my new plaid Bermuda shorts, I simply reminded myself that they probably had alcoholic mothers and would likely end up pregnant by junior year of high school. Maybe not the healthiest approach to self-confidence, but no one was harmed in the process, and I left unscathed. I wouldn’t react to unkind words, so unkind people left me alone, at least when I was present.

Not everyone is so weirdly able to deflect insults. It took me a long time to learn that.

I’d like to say it started with “John” and “Bill.” John and Bill were good friends – best friends, even. Both were socially awkward, made my good friend, “Anne,” feel uncomfortable by hopelessly crushing on her, and lacked the confidence to respond to bullying in any constructive way. We made fun of Bill’s alto clarinet and John’s meltdown that resulted in hiding under our science teacher’s desk, yelling at him and everyone else to “go away.” Of course there were also plenty of gay jokes.

We decided that Bill was a pervert when he wouldn’t take his eyes off of Anne’s bikini on swim days in PE, and eventually I came up with the idea (and had support from my friends) to write John a Valentine’s Day candy-gram posing as a secret admirer, asking him to meet at the water fountain after school and ditching him completely. By the end of sixth period we felt incredibly guilty and let him know what we’d done while profusely apologizing, but no amount of damage control could make it okay. We were little jerks.

Later on, as we became even less sympathetic, we decided to target “Sam,” who wore sweatshorts every day. We called him “Sweatshorts” and made fun of his lacking trumpet skills. We locked him out of the band room while it was snowing one day for a few minutes, and incessantly teased him about things that SERIOUSLY DIDN’T MATTER, LIKE, AT ALL.

The worst part of all this was that I thought Sam was our friend. I thought he was in on the joke, that he didn’t mind the teasing. He never seriously fought back, so I assumed he was fair game. No one ever told me that this mindset was horribly wrong. No one assumed the good, smart chunky girl could ever be so cruel. Sam would never admit to being bullied by a girl and her clan of dorks so he never reported us, and we got away with it.

Teachers spent plenty of time teaching us how to deal with bullies, but not nearly enough time explaining what it means to be nice to others. Without my knowledge, I had become a bully, and I took joy in it.

~TIME FOR THE AWKWARD~ I think the worst part of the awkward stage is that you don’t even know you’re in the awkward stage. I wasn’t very fond of myself at the time and took it out on people in terrible ways. Also, I still own this shirt that I’ve had since I was 14.

When I made fun of John or Bill or Sam, I did it with my friends. We found common ground in demeaning others, and it made us feel strong and superior. We weren’t the popular kids, at all. We were band geeks before it was cool, honors English students, kids who spent Friday nights at home watching PG movies with our families. When we picked on the obvious targets, the lowest of the low, our own mounting insecurities didn’t seem to matter. We felt great.

You may be wondering why I would bring any of this up. I’d be more than willing to leave my embarrassingly-cruel treatment of others back in middle school where it belongs, but there’s more to the story. The gratification that comes with hurting others is so ridiculously temporary, and I wish I’d known that. If someone had told me back in 2007 that my clique would disappear come ninth grade, that I’d eventually quiet down as I fully realized the extent of my own insecurities, I might have realized how stupid I was being.

My story should end with my getting in trouble, at least mildly disciplined by someone’s mom so that I’d learn my lesson.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, I got away with it, finished middle school, attended a high school with very few people I knew and liked, and got my own healthy dose of painful teenager-self-realization one day when I realized the full extent of what I’d done.

Sam was in my sophomore World History class. By this point, I’d learned to be somewhat of a decent (if not ridiculously shy and awkward) human being, and was able to engage with Sam in mature, thoughtful conversation. We reminisced about our middle school days, and talked a bit about where everyone had ended up after 8th grade graduation. Turns out, he was a pretty cool guy.

It wasn’t long before he started bringing up some of those incidents – the incidents that I still didn’t even realize had hurt him, many of which I didn’t remember happening at all. He reminded me of the name calling, the criticisms, the several nasty happenings, that, to my horror, were often mostly my fault.

As it turns out, we really hurt Sam. He struggled with making friends to begin with. He came home feeling worthless, even self-destructive, after we treated him so poorly. There were days he didn’t even want to come to school because he worried about what we would do or say. His confidence started low, and I took it upon myself to lower it even more just so I could feel superior.

Ouch. Finally, I felt it. It stung to finally feel it, but it had to happen, and I’m glad it did.

“I am so sorry. I had no idea,” was all I could say. I wanted to cry, to give seventh-grade-him a hug. I wanted to slap seventh-grade-me in the face and ask what the hell I was thinking, but I couldn’t. All I could do was offer my sincere apology, and it felt so right to finally be nice to someone.

I finally felt regret, learning that painful lesson that taught me to have the compassion that I, for whatever reason, had lacked during those early formative years. Would it have been better to learn this lesson SIGNIFICANTLY earlier, in the heat of all of it? Probably. But I think I turned out all right.

Guess who’s 16 and cute again? And full of post-bullying regret?

Today, I try my best to sympathize with victims, but I painfully and instinctively empathize with bullies. I want to tell victims of bullying that things will get better for them, because from what I’ve seen in the grown-up real world, they do. I also want to tell the bullies that things will stop being so great really soon, and that they better get ready for shame, regret, and an ever-deepening pool of low self-esteem, because that high will never last.

What I did to my victims could have been so much worse. I know that. But that still doesn’t justify my behavior. Whether a bully is making fun of a kid’s pants or telling him to kill himself, the urge to hurt is coming from the same place, and it needs to stop. Compassion doesn’t come easily to everyone, but the earlier we can teach it, the earlier we can even convince kids to just ignore whoever they consider weirdos rather than tear them down, the better.

I still have issues, believe me. Low self-esteem doesn’t just go away when you realize you’ve been a terrible person. First, it gets worse. Much worse.

This is me six months ago, realizing my issues.

But then something great happens. When you grow up and finally stop worrying about yourself and how you appear to others, you begin seeing the goodness all around you, and take joy in it, without hurting anyone. You can’t begin to feel love for other people until you sufficiently love yourself, and I’m finally, after all these years, starting to learn that. I’ve begun trying to find something good in everyone I know, even those with completely clashing personalities, because they deserve my respect, and I deserve to feel good about humanity. Yes, I’m still ridiculously cynical, but I don’t hate anyone, and that should count as progress.

There are occasionally times that I’m tempted to point out another’s weaknesses to build up my own confidence, but I’ve learned to brush off that urge more and more. I still pit myself against others in imaginary power struggles, but I’m realizing now that there’s not much point in behavior like that. I am me, not them. We’re different – not better or worse. It’s not about being better or worse than your peers anyway – it’s about being true to yourself, and it’s about being kind.

I’m still judgmental. I still take my strength, especially as an independent woman with large biceps, very seriously.

But now, alongside my quietly stubborn tendencies, my utter lack of submissiveness, my firm stoicism and strength-obsession, resides compassion, empathy, and at the very least, an attempt at understanding. Am I still a bully? That’s not my place to decide. But I hope, for the sake of those I’ve wronged over the years, that I’ve sufficiently changed my ways.