Rifling through old pictures at my mom’s house recently, I had to smile.

Grainy images captured our vacation to Washington DC when I was 14, and the college visit out west that landed us in rural Idaho (I thought I wanted to be a forest ranger).

Another photo showed my sister on the phone—we thought it was glued to her ear! Others captured multiple birthday parties, family reunions, all sorts of friends and pets, our silly nose pictures from Christmas.

One snapshot caught me right before I set off for Vanguards, a wilderness leadership program for young people. In it I look ready-to-go, sun hat covering my ponytail, as I await the bus that would carry us off.

We’d earn 3 PE credits (back when they had PE requirements in college) if we hiked, camped, canoed, sweated and made it out alive in the month of August in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

I remember thinking, ‘It couldn’t be that bad, could it?’

It’s okay, go ahead and have a good laugh.

A second snapshot showed us upon our return. I’m standing in front of my dorm with a bandaged foot and a crutch (I developed a staph infection from the blisters and bogs we encountered during our daily 5+ mile hikes), a beaming smile on my face despite it being painful to walk.

I felt pride, and not a little satisfaction in looking at the old pictures.

While I didn’t set out with any agenda for that Vanguard trip other than securing credits, it became a pivotal life experience for me.

Not because it was easy, but because it wasn’t.

The challenges of living with total strangers out in the Northwoods of Wisconsin and Michigan, for a straight three weeks, provided opportunities for us to come face-to-face with ourselves. We learned to be aware of our likes and dislikes, our judgments about how things should go or not, about who should be engaging in what.

As a result, we learned to cull forth qualities that would serve us in our lives, in our leadership. Qualities like courage, teamwork, perseverance and generosity.

Dropped off and pulled together in teams of ten, we quickly learned the logistics of backpacking, reading a topographical map, and setting up camp – even in the rain!

Our leaders taught us to canoe and portage long distances in stifling heat and pouring rain. They taught us rock climbing and rappelling down cliffs in the Porcupine Mountains; they guided us through a two-day ropes course.

(Those of you who’ve not been thirty feet up in the air with only a harness and rope tied to your waist as you walk on a line across fifty feet across, haven’t lived yet! The zip through the trees was fun, but quite scary, and truly tested the limits of what we thought we could do).


The Wall

The most compelling experience for me, throughout the three-week experience, was the one that provided a cohesive, grounding experience for us as a team: The Wall.

To succeed we had to work together as a team to scale up and over a constructed 12×12 wall with only ourselves, our ingenuity, and our willingness to keep at it.

All sizes and shapes, not to mention strength, we worked together to get up and over the wall in record time. After finagling, exploring different options, messing up and starting again—grunting and sweating as our emotions ran high – we finally made it! It was exhilarating!

The Wall taught us about:

  • the value of contribution – each person’s ideas served to create a cohesive, forward-moving team
  • the power of creativity and will in the face of unpleasantness and hardship
  • the need to drop what we thought we knew in favor of learning what we could do and what we could do together
  • the importance of trusting one’s self even in the face of the immediate belief that we couldn’t go another step, lift another person, carry any more weight, sweat another drop

Today in my mom’s basement, I only recall those hardships with fondness.You see, they were simply a means to the end of learning to live each day, whatever came my way.

Each day offered up something new to us: waking up to rain in our tents knowing we’d have an 8-hike that day. Battling bird-size mosquitoes through dense underbrush. Completing a 20-mile hike through a mucky, dense bog. Portaging our canoes in dripping humidity for what seemed like forever.

Of course tempers flared as we tired in the heat, got lost, and ran out of our nasty, prepackaged food. Yet at the end of those long days, with slightly burnt dinners over the camp fire, we shared stories that found us a mix of emotions and experiences that all challenged:

  • our opinions about what we could and couldn’t do
  • our trust in ourselves and each other
  • our limits about our own individuality
  • our connection with something bigger than ourselves

Today the day-to-day events of our lives, while likely not canoeing in high water or balancing a tight-wire in the woods, provide us opportunities to develop those inner qualities we need to live life fully while on the front lines of our lives.

Not because it’s easy, but because it isn’t.



Developing Qualities

Picture me signing up for Vanguards, getting dropped in the woods with complete strangers, only to spend all my time and energy trying to finagle how to get out of the Northwoods!

Not learning how to keep dry or start a fire in the rain, or how to use a compass to find our way, or working with teammates to strategize how to climb a 12-foot wall–not noticing opportunities to develop courage in the face of fear.

If I were to say, “I must develop courage,” and then sat down to merely think about courage and why it’s a good idea to develop it, I’d likely learn little.

Yet finding the next handhold while climbing up a sheer rock face or dancing out across a slippery log with only a slim lead to hold onto gave me a tangible opportunity to face my fears and feel into a newly emerging courage.

Every moment, every person, every situation we experience every day is a ‘Vanguard’ ropes course or wall designed precisely to bring out the best in us so that we can eventually come home to our true nature — being awake and alive in the world.

When we finally figured out how to get up and over the wall, we shared adeeply satisfying moment. We enjoyed the experience of a difficult task completed, the exhilaration of working together, a challenging climb viewed from the top. We were aware, awake and fully alive!

Each of us are presented with daily opportunities to engage our walls, our challenging obstacle courses, to develop those qualities we’ll need to navigate through life. How we approach them makes all the difference.

With awareness that there may be something of value – not to mention something to learn with each obstacle – we can climb with resistance, fear, anger or openness, curiosity, and gratitude for the opportunity.

How we climb makes all the difference.

One day there may be a wall named cancer staring us or a loved one in the face. Another day a work situation that smacks of precarious unfairness. Later, the challenge of drenching rainfall called aging.

How will you approach your wall, your obstacle?

It will make all the difference.