“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” E.E. Cummings recognized his conflict with convention and fully embraced the fundamental American value of individualism, stretching the soul to cover enough space in this world to resist getting lost in mediocrity or someone else’s dreams. This proclamation of uniqueness and the call for bravery in finding oneself is now the ballyhoo of the 21st century American family.
Parents are no longer satisfied with well-behaved and healthy children, we want them to be resilient, risk-taking, and gritty too. The expectation that children are sufficiently cultured and independent is born out of the overwhelming demand for happiness and purpose as the bedrock of a good life. If we begin the quest early enough, we think, they will be inoculated against one of life’s worst grievances: indifference. Yet we’ve collectively subscribed to the imagined reality that adversity is by default ruinous, and that grit will somehow manifest by thought alone.
However, our obsession with avoiding discomfort and boredom is less of a childhood ailment than it is an adult predicament. We are saddled with heavy titles, defined by what we do, that begin to muddle our identities. Exploration and an intermittent shedding of perfunctory roles can illuminate or ignite the core of our individual characters. And while openness to experience is a variable trait — with some expressing more interest in novelty and others more comfortable with predictable routine — we can all benefit from small adventures that focus our attention, inducing spontaneous moments of mindfulness, and cultivate self-intimacy, deepening our knowledge of who we are and what we want to be remembered for.
The contents of our consciousness results from the ethereal relationship between our internal states and environmental inputs. The act of becoming who we really are feels purposeful, as if authored by an oppressed homunculus who, once liberated from the constraints of culture, works to strengthen our will and direct the business of living. It has become an emblem of status to lament the loss of time we have to dedicate to hobbies, sleeping, and wanderlust; a false notion that the more chaotic and busy our lives, the closer we are to an ideal existence. We spend more and more on yoga (and yoga for kids), meditation apps, therapy, boutique spin classes, gym memberships, and alcohol and other substances to reduce the noise of anxious minds, hoping to find the thread that will lead to transcendence and a sense of mattering.
It isn’t that we shouldn’t invest in creating experience, or that spending time in a gym has no worth, it’s that these are targeted, narrow approaches to pursuing identity that fail to broaden the psychological landscape while maintaining the boundaries between each self. We have become so rigid with our daily activities that we have forgotten the importance of unstructured play and even dependency, both on the earth and on each other.
Feeding the human appetite to roam, play, and feel through challenges reveals more about who we are because it is precisely that arrangement that allowed humans to discover their nature. To fully comprehend our essence and to nourish our future selves, we must be willing to occasionally disconnect from the digital realm and step into the nature we’ve been so busy dressing up in asphalt.
The word nature comes from the Latin word for ‘birth’. Nature is home. To me, hitting the trails is like visiting my favorite grandparent’s house, where I am treated to sweets and stories that cannot be received anywhere else. When hiking or running alone, I notice the wind against my fingertips, the rhythm of my breath, and the purity of simply being a living organism without assigning any value to that experience of being. The disorder of competing thoughts calms, and I can attend to and entertain each one with clarity and patience. I forgive my mistakes; I accept my failures; I commit to my principles; I plan my missions. I become who I want to be.
Nature is nothing less than transformative, even if its effects are ephemeral or ancillary. It is meditative and inspiring. In our darkest moments, time on the trails can be cathartic, as stoic trees and impassive streams act as mirrors and echoes, reflecting or augmenting unwanted memories. But there we can rage without crumbling, becoming stronger by enduring naked reality and feeling cradled by the world beyond a singular existence. The weight of responsibility grows lighter knowing that the only moment we will ever own is in the present. We can feel whole, electric, and alive.
Unlike many adults, who have been divorced from nature for so many years, children dive into its magic with little apprehension. The peculiarities of the forest and its animals emerge and the frequency with which they ask questions about their surroundings rises, each subsequent query increasing in depth and complexity. They are liberated from the nudges of contemporary, industrialized systems and social order. The most cautious child can try on bravery by pretending to be on safari; the most daring child can learn boundaries by skimming their knees after a miscalculated jump.
Children who interact with their planet begin to view it as something worth preserving; a place that gives so much to them — a home — that it deserves their protection. They become responsible, risk-taking, self-sufficient, and confident to explore a world that is not completely safe. Nature is a place they can develop the courage necessary to become who they really are.
Belonging to the natural world begets belonging to one that is abstract and difficult to pin down, the vital yet illusory domains of attachment, imagination, and selfhood. The human experience sharpens, pricking taught monotony just enough to release the unseen treasures of change and unanticipated pleasure. Knowing that we remain ourselves even if deprived of modernity is enlightening; when gadgets and the distorted exchanges of online social networks go missing, we are capable of greater inclusion and larger risks. Perhaps this is just the result of gratitude, but it is more accessible when distractions are replaced with quiet wonder.
I am lucky to live in a valley flanked with open space and miles of trails, a nearby ocean, and daily sunshine. I understand that some of us do not have the luxury of walking to a trail-head or even have the desire to get too dirty. But trekking in nature, either alone or with family, is a small cost for such a high return. It would be easy to appreciate the beauty of the hills from afar, but it isn’t until we are immersed in the bucolics and woods that our roots are unearthed, and we uncover more than who we really are.