In all of my 16 and a half years of education, it wasn’t until I started taking adventure classes in college that I realized how rarely we are asked to problem-solve in our everyday lives, to put ourselves out there and do something truly challenging. Sure, we ask kids to figure out how to score well on a four-hour-long multiple choice test, and how to juggle five A.P. classes with playing a varsity sport, but our world has evolved to emphasize academic challenges, often leaving out other types of challenges. When I started working on ropes courses, this fact became extremely apparent to me.
Children would come to climb, often for the first time, with minimal problem-solving skills. Kids would frequently start to climb an element, begin to feel tired or frustrated, and then look down at their belayer to ask, “what do I do now?” We almost always responded, “you climb.” It’s not the answer the kids were looking for, but it was almost always effective at getting them to continue on and at least try to solve problems for themselves. Yet, I don’t blame the children themselves at all for their initial responses.
In our world of modern conveniences, we’re used to instantaneous answers. If we don’t know the answer to something, we Google it. If we can’t fix something, we call someone else to do it. We’re used to instant gratification, and we’re certainly not used to discomfort. I don’t mean the kind of discomfort felt when someone sits too close to you on the subway, or when a lecture hall feels unbearably warm and stuffy. I mean the type of discomfort that requires deep introspection in order to push through. I mean the type of discomfort you feel when you’ve been outside kayaking in the cold, in two straight days of nonstop rain, with no foreseeable end to the rain in sight.
From this very experience—one that, until recently, I never expected to encounter—I realized that in our everyday lives, when we’re wet and cold, we pretty much always have the promise of a warm dry shelter waiting for us. I also learned that, when you don’t have that promise, you have to find other ways to stay positive and motivated. I never realized just how much I rely on my warm dry house, and just how pathetic most of us feel without one. It seems to me that the only way we can ever learn to truly appreciate the simple things is to go without them for a little while.
In doing this, I realized that experiencing such difficult and uncomfortable times can only help us build character. It reminded me to be grateful and appreciative of the basic conveniences with which I and so many others are blessed, and it reminded me that it is possible to be creative and strong-willed, and to push through the discomfort we feel in all aspects of our lives. As our wise intern, Ben, aptly reminded us as we discussed a completely different topic (our fear of the future post-WRFI), “most obstacles are mental, not physical.”
So why was it that, in the past, I could always recognize that a kid who thinks they can’t climb to the top of an element is facing a mental block, not a physical one, yet when faced with the obstacle of physical discomfort, I (and many others) could not recognize the uselessness of having this type of negative mental barrier?
I believe this mental barrier of negativity only results because we are so unfamiliar with this discomfort. I also believe that once we’re used to solving one type of problem and pushing through one type of discomfort, we gain momentum at it. Therefore, it is crucial for us to continue doing so. We should keep finding things that make us comfortable, things that seem like we aren’t capable of doing, and then push through them.
We are living in a time when people are expressing more and more dissatisfaction with their lives. We are consuming more and more goods, and yet have very little to show for it. Statistically speaking, the number of people who describe themselves as “happy” has been on the decline since the 1950s. Why is this? Bill McKibbon, professor of religious studies at Middlebury College, suggests that “we need time with family, we need silence for reflection,” and that “we need connection with nature.” He quaintly titles this need the “Laura Ingalls Wilder Effect.”
He asserts that we have lives rich in material, but deprived in the aforementioned areas. He also asserts that we need to achieve the inverse. “We don’t need candy,” he reminds us, “we have candy every day of our lives. We just haven’t figured that out, because the momentum of the past is still with us: we still imagine we’re in that Little House on the Big Prairie.” So how do we change this attitude?
I propose that we challenge ourselves by putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations. While the average person may be asked to do seemingly impossible tasks like doing eight hours of work in three, how often in the course of our everyday lives can we say that we pushed through something truly demanding? How many people can say that they kayaked and camped along a stretch of nearly 50 miles of the Missouri River in freezing rain?
This type of challenge may not be for everyone, and that’s ok. What’s important is that we continue to find things we think are too difficult or uncomfortable, and we tackle them. While this type of experience may not necessarily sound like the best or easiest way to spend time, it certainly seems like a step away from the “candy”- the things we get far too much of, and toward the things we lack: “reflection,” “connection,” and “adventure.”