“ . . . Human beings have forgotten what they came here for. With all of the stimulation outside of ourselves we have lost sight of the Beloved, our creator, and have lost ourselves as a result . . . We have the answers within us, but it takes incredible discipline and hard work to gain back those abandoned gifts we were given as a birthright. We are each a part of our divine maker and creation itself, and when we accept that divine connection, we have begun upon the path of enlightenment.” –Christy Turlington, Living Yoga: Creating a Life Practice
Peace, joy, empowerment, and love thrive when we are able to see the value in life’s difficulties. In the face of suffering, the question can always be asked, “If this is my teacher, what can I learn?
This kind of openness brings us to the realization that we have a relationship with life. And if we are willing to fully engage with what life hands us, over time we experience expansion and evolution. Though we may be surprised and confused at what shows up, we can gradually learn to trust our lives, even as we hold the mystery of it all. Trials become one of life’s most spiritual opportunities, holding precious gifts.
Often it is our trials that throw open the doors of our hearts to the arrival of the Divine.
A broken heart can be an open heart.
One Saturday morning when I was 16, I received the crushing news that my father had been killed in a car accident teaching driver’s education that morning.
A river of pain that felt as forceful as the current of The Snake River, near my home, thrashed through my body. I felt crazy with grief and ran from the house screaming.
It had been the student’s first drive. They were on a country road outside of town surrounded by potato fields. Neither the 14-year-old driver, nor my father, who was in the passenger’s seat, saw the large farm truck coming toward my father’s side of the car at an intersection.
My father, a jovial man with a broad brown face, soft green eyes, and a mischievous smile revealing a space between his top front teeth, often covered his bald head with a dapper hat. He clothed his short stout body in snazzy suits or fishing or ski gear on the weekends. He joked a lot and loved to have conversations with people wherever he went.
We loved each other unabashedly, often walking for hours together – talking and sharing. We skied together, camped together, shopped together. He was a calm center in the middle of the turbulent storm that had become my life – always encouraging me, believing in me, and winking at me across the room.
Now, both of my parents were gone. My mother had died eight years before in the same month. It felt like my foundation in life had been ripped out from under me. Those first horrible hours after the news I longed to have that river of pain swallow me whole into the dark shadows of oblivion, carrying me away from what felt like the impossible task of going on with my life.
But in Psalms it talks about “Peace . . . like a river.” Where could I ever find those waters?
I basically slept walked through life the next six months until life bought me a gift. Fred Miller was a humble science teacher in Driggs, Idaho, who hiked the trails of the surrounding mountains several times a week during the summer as he led the youth at summer camps on hikes. A survivor of childhood polio he walked with a long pole and slight limp as he hiked miles over the rugged terrain in eastern Idaho and into Wyoming with his young hikers.
I had met him at girls’ camp. When we hiked with “Brother Miller,” as he was known to the youth, we paused to taste licorice plant and watermelon snow. We learned what the continental divide is, and how to treat a blister or a bee sting. We rested on large rocks next to the creeks of rushing clear mountain water as he taught us about forgiveness, love, adversity, and sacrifice. He was a fountain of spiritual truth. Most importantly, when you were around Brother Miller, with his leathery brown skin, piercing blue eyes, and gentle smile, you felt as if he could see all that was precious and good about you no matter what.
And so the summer after my father’s death he invited me on a special hike — a three day pack trip into the Alaska Basin, a lush, gorgeous Alpine Meadow at the base of the Grand Tetons with five other teenagers, four adult married couples, and himself.
On the second day of the hike, after a rigorous climb up into the backwoods of the Tetons, we all slept under a midnight blue mountain sky alive with thousands of bright white, twinkling stars. By noon the next day we arrived at the meadow that is known as Alaska Basin. A lush covering of green stretched before us filled with purple Lupine, red Indian Paint Brush, and wild Sunflowers. The sky was a stunning azure and the jagged peaks of the snow covered Tetons gleamed before us in stunning clarity — America’s own version of the Swiss Alps.
It was quiet in the meadow except for the call of a hawk overhead and the gurgling of a mountain brook running down from the mountains. We hikers were exhausted and also in awe at the stunning tableau before our eyes. Incredibly, I ended up alone with Brother Miller for about fifteen minutes. It was fifteen minutes that would change the rest of my life.
There I was at mere 17, struggling with the meaning of life, trying to make sense out of life’s most difficult mystery – why do people suffer? How was it, that not even out of high school, I no longer had parents? My question for my mountain teacher was simple, yet universal in the face of the devastating adversity I faced, “Why?”
I trusted Brother Miller and looked up to him so much I imagined he knew most everything. So I was surprised when very candidly he said quietly “I don’t know,” and then fell silent. We sat together in contemplative communion. His pure care for me was tangible, as this wise master seemed to be searching himself for some set of words that wouldn’t fail me in this crucial moment.
Eventually he turned toward me with a tender gaze and stretched out his arm and with a wide sweep motioned to those Tetons, that meadow, and that sky and said, “What I do know, is that God created this, and knowing that teaches me we can trust Him.” He also assured me that, though we can’t immediately see it, there is purpose in our pain.
Just as important as his words, was the feeling his words created. Not even realizing how tense and braced against life my body had been for the past six months, I immediately experienced a wave of release. My whole being felt the greater truth of what he said — that there’s so much we don’t understand as we face adversity . . . there is always something bigger happening that we can’t see. This is the mystery of life and that mystery is not something we solve as much as it is something we live through.
Sitting in the palm of the beautiful and unfathomable creation on that mountain, I began to understand that even with the trials, there is a natural order to our lives even when it feels entirely unnatural. Most importantly, I realized I wasn’t alone. I knew sitting on that mountain that Brother Miller was physical, tangible, evidence of God’s love for me.
I left those mountains trusting my life a little more. Ultimately, my broken heart had brought me to the Table of the Divine. I began to have a sense of an eternal flow in which I could allow myself to be carried. And I could also row as needed.
Living life as a creative process requires patience and presence within each moment. Our progress takes on a life of its own as we practice not only surrender, but resourcefulness and curiosity in the face of difficulty. We are all creative beings and we exercise our creativity and our power with each mindful choice we make. And life’s great wonder opens to us as we are willing to abide its mystery.
Now, remembering these searing and soothing experiences of my 16th year of life from the perspective of my 60th year, I feel as if all the parts of my life – both shadow and light, have all been circumscribed into one great whole. And it is a beautiful creation, a creation I can humbly call, a life I love!
All those years ago, as I left the Alaska Basin with Fred Miller and the rest of the hikers, we entered difficult terrain. Our descent down the mountain was over jagged rocky trails glistening with bronze mica, and craggy weathered pines. The harsh landscape of the downward descent was stunning. Below us we could see the Snake River winding its way home.