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Looking Outside Ourselves

Emily Dean

What if our lives and challenges and problems are only as large as the amount of energy and focus we dedicate toward them?

My husband and I love the woods, and so weekends often find us trudging through the outdoors, spending time in nature. Following our move from Nashville, Tennessee to the greater Milwaukee area in Wisconsin, we suddenly had a slew of new forests and trails and parks to discover and explore. So a few weeks back, we made plans to head west a little and explore a small section of the Ice Age Trail. When the day of our hike finally arrived, the skies laid low and gray, heavy with rain, and the air gave off a chill that warned of impending winter.

We decided to persist. We laced up our boots, layered on a few extra sweatshirts, and took to the trail. About a half hour into the hike, I happened to glance ahead and see my husband stop and stand still, just few yards in front of me. I caught up to him as he said, “Sometimes it’s nice to just stop and take it all in.” So I, too, stopped, stood still, and took it all in alongside him.  

All around us the forest was moody and dark, heavy with mist, leaves weighed down with miniature puddles of rain. We took off our hats and drank in the sight. The air smelled thick and heavy of wet pine and underbrush. The quiet of the forest on that overcast, misty day almost echoed off the trees as everything seemed to stand still, paused in a moment of reflection, calling for reverence from us, too.

It took my breath away, and I had almost missed it all.

The trails were slick and soaked with rain, and for fear of falling as we weaved up and down and around throughout the forest, I had kept my eyes down, trying to anticipate each next step, meanwhile missing the ravines and creeks and nature all around me. In my downward vision, I saw only brown, only mud. I focused only on my feet, one foot in front of the other, only on safety.

I find I am often like that in life, too.

I am so terrified of falling or, really, of failing that I spend almost all of my time looking down at my lot in life, worried over the problems and challenges that seem so much larger than anything I could ever survive.

And I miss the magic around me.  

I forget to pay attention to a child’s joy unbridled in playtime, to the way dough rises slowly yet effortlessly on the countertop, to two grandmothers sharing a cup of tea. My inward, downward focus narrows in on the muddy path that threatens to trip, and so I worry and fight panic and wonder if the sun will ever come out, dry up the path, and create an easier journey forward.

I wonder what would happen if I removed the blinders from that inward, downward focus, and paused to look outward, upward—to lift my energy up and away from myself. I wonder if maybe I’d discover a beauty so deep and heavy and thick all around me that it, too, calls for reverence—just as the forest did that day when my husband stopped to drink it in.

And I’ve been thinking. . . What if our lives and challenges and problems are only as large as the amount of energy and focus we dedicate toward them? Yes, we must pay bills and do good work and figure out how to get from point A to B, but what if the process of moving through those challenges can only feel as monstrous and impossible as the depth of focus we award them?

Perhaps we don’t have to look down and only see a muddy path. Maybe in life, too, we can lift our eyes, drink in the wonder around us, and remember that a world much bigger and more strangely beautiful than we realize exists all around us. Maybe, in the process, we could find our beings restored, strengthened by a visit of beauty, and we could continue on with a focus that is more outward than inward, more upward than downward.

Article by Angelina Danae  | Photography by Hilary Hyland