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Life is a Journey

Written by Lane Gormley, EdS, LPC, NCC

There are moments in most people’s lives when they hit a stumbling block, hope diminishes, and the future looks bleak. Whether in emergencies or during prolonged periods of the blahs, it is easy to get “stuck” and imagine that there is no way out and that things are always going to be this way. At times like this, it might help to think of life as a journey.

If we think of our earliest childhood and where we went from there, the often bumpy roads of the teen years, the happy events and the misunderstandings that caused us to turn and go in a different direction, the people we met who helped us find our way or who caused us to wander off course, what conclusions can we draw? Hopefully we might notice that change and the possibility of growth are constant. We might also learn, if we keep our eyes and hearts open, that being patient, mindful, and accepting of the present can smooth the path that is opening out in front of us as we move forward on our way. Whatever is happening now, somehow we will get through it.

A lot of our literature, films, and even prayers are about journeys, and they invite us to think about our lives and how we are living them.

In The Wizard of Oz, a group of characters go in search of a “wizard” who will give each of them what they lack. It is only through their journey that they realize that they lack nothing. The Tin Man cannot know how big his heart is until he feels his love for his friends. The Cowardly Lion cannot experience his own courage until he has to defend the others. The Scarecrow must use his wisdom before he can see that he has a brain. And Dorothy learns that wherever she is, she is always at home. It is our journey that brings out our qualities or attributes. Until we go on our journey, we cannot know what they are… or who we are. And no “wizard” can grant us that knowledge.

Another film, Star Wars, depicts the cosmic journey of young Luke Skywalker who takes part in an intergalactic struggle between Good and Evil. Luke is aided by wise and extraordinary beings to find his connection with a magical power called “The Force” which – when he learns how to harness it – takes his journey to a whole new level. George Lucas’s film invites us to think about what we can accomplish if we are courageous and if we believe in ourselves. It also seems to imply that we can have Divine help if we seek it.

The Twenty-Third Psalm is beloved by many people. It describes the journey of a Shepherd and his flock. We are told that the Lord is the Shepherd and that you and I are among his flock and that, under His guidance, we will be led to green pastures and still waters.

Another journey that I love is an IMAX film called Everest. It documents the backgrounds and preparatory training of a group of climbers who wanted to climb Mt. Everest and who met to do that together. I loved hearing why each of them had set for themselves such a difficult goal. There was a beautiful young Spanish climber who was first seen practicing her sport, hanging off of a cliff high above the ocean. She said that ever since she was a child, her goal had always been to go “higher and higher”. A Nepalese Sherpa whose father, Tenzing Norgay, had accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary on the first ascent of Everest, wanted to go to the highest point in the world to commune with the spirit of his father. The group leader, Ed Viesturs, decided to make the climb without oxygen because, as he said, “I want it to be just me and the mountain.” Seeing them prepare for this difficult episode in their life’s journey and then seeing them voluntarily risk impossible dangers helped viewers understand the high price that anyone pays to stand in the sunshine at the top of world.

My favorite journey is a river journey and a sacred lesson. The Buddhists say that life is a river down which each of us must travel. Some of us will choose our way carefully, navigating the changing currents with great care, seeking out the calm stretches and the deepest and stillest waters. Others will crash through endless white water in reckless abandon with no concern for personal safety. Some people will destroy their rafts or boats – or even themselves – and have to begin the journey again. Some might spend their whole journey looking backward to a past moment or place. Others might reach out for the branches or roots of ancient trees to slow their progress or steer onto sandbars to remain in the same place. But they cannot. Sooner or later, everyone must go down the river.

Another river journey that seems magical to me is in a 1951 film called The African Queen with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. It is about a very dangerous trip down a river made by an old drunk and a spinster school teacher. During the course of the journey, it becomes evident that he is much more than an old drunk and she much more than a spinster school teacher. Their hard and exciting journey together is transformative for them and helpful to the anti-Nazi cause. A key point about their journey is that, at the very moment when they both think they are going to die, the river itself saves them. Our journey always saves us by leading us further. Our journey is bigger than we are. Perhaps it has cosmic dimensions like Luke Skywalker’s.

If you imagine your own life as a journey, what kind of journey is it? Where did it start? Where are you going? Where are you today? Do you have a map? What guides you? What have you lost along the way? What have you gained? Are you carrying any excess baggage with you?

Seeing life as a journey can give us an overview from which to take into perspective all that has happened to us in our lives. In times of trouble, just remind yourself that the current moment is a brief but significant moment in your journey. Stop and look at it. Feel your feelings. Write down your thoughts. Honor this experience, no matter how difficult it is. You won’t pass this way again.

One Sunday morning at Ridgeview Institute, I left Spirituality Group to return to the staff room. In group we had all talked about our journeys, and I had mentioned the Buddhist view of life as a river and The African Queen. As I neared the door to the Crisis Unit, I saw a piece of folded paper on the floor. Thinking that it might have been dropped by a staff member or one of my Clients, I picked it up and unfolded it. This is what I read:

You must travel the river, live on it, follow it when there is morning light, and follow it when there is nothing but dark and the banks have blurred into shadows. ~Will Haygood

I want to end with a poem. If you don’t like poetry, just read it as if it were not a poem but simply a comment made by a woman who finally went on her journey.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
 ~Mary Oliver

All journeys are miraculous. I hope that you will come to see that about yours. Please try to travel joyously. If you don’t know how, come and talk to us.

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