The forest as a dark, scary, haunting place is a metaphor carried through the centuries inside the human psyche, found in our collective storytelling.
The forest is a tool shading us from the sun. Dimming the power of light. As beautiful as the forest is, crossing from forest edge into a clearing can surprise our eyes as we adjust to the intense light of the approaching meadow, as if someone flipped a switch on.
As much as we are able to see while walking inside the forest, it is the tree canopy screening the full amount of light possible to us. The forest is ‘dark’ to us during peak daytime.
Forests are screening out the most light available to us. The light is there. But we are lost inside the forest which is always providing a diminished version of the light.
Perhaps, the forest needs to be removed if we can’t find our way out.
There is also the metaphor of a seemingly insignificant small spark, be it fire or a passing thought, having an enormous, disproportional affect on it’s surroundings.
One small careless incident, and the whole forest burns down.
One small careless word, and a kingdom crumbles.
One small thoughtful daily act, and darkness itself begins to fade.
When I consider the warning how a small spark can burn a forest down, I find it as a warning of thoughtful discernment. The message isn’t “don’t be careless and screw everything up.” What if the message is “a small spark can take on a great forest.”
We should decide with care which forests to burn down. There are forests preventing us from full access to the Light.
There are forests of oppression, shielding the Light of all we can be if not for unjust systems.
There are forests of depression, shielding the Light that is telling us we are tremendously valued as we are.
There are forests of bitterness, shielding the Light trying to tell us to let go, move on, and walk forward humbly motivated.
There are forests of lies, shielding the Light of Truth by using Light itself in a very diminished, altered state.
A small spark, the smallest amount of hope you could possibly imagine, is enough. It’s always just enough. It will light a new light as it burns the forest down. What is left is more Light. The Light which was diminished. A Light we only saw a burst here and there of through the forest’s thick tree canopy.
We had no idea how bright it was outside the forest.
But liberated from the dark forest we lived in, are we not tasked to carefully burn down forests of lies, oppression, worthlessness, shame, anger, or bitterness we see others are wandering in? Setting a small spark in our forest takes resolve, but it only has to be a small spark.
Burn down the forest of shame, bitterness, hopelessness, all which shields Light.
Imagine getting the gift of experiencing a talking burning bush. It’s basically telling you what to do and what to stay away from.
Then imagine walking away from the experience going “that was awesome, but I’m stuck where I am at. I wonder how I’ll be able to change. If only I had a sign and some guidance and a chance. One day though I bet I’ll get clear direction. It will be obvious with no doubt involved.”
Then the next day, from then on, you wonder when the big obvious sign will come.
The day after a burning bush started talking to you.
This is the time of year where we are easily tricked. Nature is disguising which season we are in. Tricks are played as a 45 degree day with rain settles in. Are we in Fall? Winter? Spring?
Tiny piles of snow leave us clues. But so do the leaf piles stacked up against fences.
How easily distracted we were just a season ago determined whether the tree leaves made it into a bag or not. Whether they made it into a consuming backyard fire turning our fall night into a glowing reminder of the warm summer which is slipping behind us.
The earth is laying down its best snares. Gray skies are hovering around still. We are bewildered due to the length of gray we’ve already seen, reminding us clearly we’ve past through Winter depression. Still, it seems like a trap for our senses. Can Spring really be near? Which cloudy fog am I still caught in?
Distinguishing moments are ahead. There are anniversaries. There are joys and hopes of forward progress.
It’s the lingering gray though. It’s not symbolism anymore as much as it is a part of our being, forged deep inside us. It shouldn’t be discarded, because this would mean discarding ourselves. It can’t be coveted either, for it lifts the gray too high.
We wander through a season trying to breakthrough into a glorious Warmth. The present, though, is reminding us there is no time-limit for our drift through such indecipherable seasons.
A truly confusing time it is. Nature continually cloaks.
I knew I needed to change. The reasons I set out to change were clear. Noble run of the mill variety reasons.
I wasn’t as productive as I should be.
I was lethargic.
I didn’t read as much as I would like.
I needed better hobbies with my downtime.
That’s cool. Good items to turn around for sure.
But never could I have imagined the lifestyle changes I began making were all going to help me withstand what was coming. Had I not changed when I did, there is no way I see myself coming out on the other side of events which were lying in wait ready to strike later on. Debilitating events. Crippling occurrences.
These negative events were ahead. They were going to happen regardless. Whether I was going to be a changed man or not, whether I was going to be prepared or not, whether I could take it or not, these events cared not. They were coming.
But prior to these negative turns ahead in my story, and of course without me knowing they were going to happen, I was building an incredible foundation of change.
It was late 2015, and I vowed to pivot from the person I was becoming. I began a process of change at a time marked by a significant number (I turned 30).
There was a faint sense of a new year’s resolution behind it, but I always like to describe how the specific changes were starting well before January 1st. At least momentum was building so I didn’t have to make a promise or resolution I knew would be abandoned. These were changes not to wait on come new year’s day but changes I started the months prior. When new year’s day did come around I’ll admit there was a little boost added.
2016 started off witnessing these changes: eating better; actually going to the gym; becoming infatuated with daily productivity schedules from the likes of Michael Hyatt, Donald Miller and others; reading a ton more on my own time.
And I was implementing all of this. Slowly and surely, some more than others, I began finding myself putting into daily practice incredible improvements. My mind was becoming sharper. My health was improving.
I was preparing myself to be better overall at all the things I already had in my life, the minor challenges I may have faced at the time, and the manageable responsibilities I had. Manageable now in comparison to what I see in my review mirror.
Sometimes in the midst of the great personal changes we commit ourselves to, disruptions bulldoze their way in, which not only should throw us off course, but destroy us all together.
I’ve heard it phrased as attacks. Some people will view these disruptions as inevitable challenges. Whatever the perspective, they came for me, they were furious, and they would have likely ended me otherwise.
But it is precisely because I started the lifestyle changes which allowed me to take on several upcoming blows. Discovering now that, if I had not committed to change when I did, and now in light of what was ahead, an incredibly humbling tone strikes deep within my core.
None of the negative story turns were what I was training for either when I set out to change. I was training within the lens of positive turns. When the negative turns came, there is no way I could have made it through if I had not already begun a path of change.
It’s a bad practice in general to play the mental game of looking backwards, trying to figure out how different things would be in the present if you hadn’t done X, or if Y hadn’t come along unexpectedly. Mainly because you were doing X, or Y did come along.
All I know is if you know you need to make a positive change in your life, there is absolutely no better time than within the calm right now. It’s wildly beyond cliche. It’s truth is life saving.
The changes you’ll have to make reacting to negative events, which will come, are merely survival changes.
The changes you make proactively while the opportunity is at hand for you to make them are changes rooting themselves deeply into you, preparing you to handle more than you ever planned to take on. They just are. Take heart and lay the better foundation today.
The chorus from the song Cardiff Giant by mewithoutYou contains a sentiment which has played through my mind a lot.
“I often wonder if I’ve already died.“
I keep looking back to my late twenties and wonder if I died back then. I wonder if I squandered freedom.
Subliminally, I think I died.
Superficially, I obtained multiple degrees (family cheers), I got the start of a technically skilled career (society cheers), and I even materialistically helped stimulate the economy by buying a car with said start of career (auto-makers cheer).
Prepared during my late teens and early 20’s with my arsenal of bibles, books and blogs, I knew I was entering my late 20’s (and the rest of my life?) with Jesus centered ways pinned to my chest.
I had my worn down Blue Like Jazz book. I had my copy of Irresistible Revolution. My NIV bible had my notes in the margins and underlined verses. My blog roll was a who’s who of Christian blogging at it’s finest (and worst) of the mid-2000’s. Blogging’s golden years.
I put in the work I needed to position myself to be in the world but not of it.
Vocation would eventually line up, I kept telling myself. My degrees could be justified in several ways once I started doing the tough, missional like work in my field. And I was certain I would be volunteering for key places doing incredible community development work.
But I wonder if I died somewhere before.
Which death had I died?
A death for freedom? Or a death for fear?
Death is cunning because it just sort of slinks in and sits back. It really doesn’t have to do much after a nudge.
I didn’t account for cubicle sitting. Sitting and sitting and sitting. I realize in college and for the previous 25 years in my life there were things like recess or the end of the 45 minute class. Or even the class of physical activity in and of itself. The desk job life was nothing I prepared for.
Sitting at work all day and doing a job would lead me to medicate at the fast food line carousel. Enabled, ironically, by the payment received for sitting at the desk and doing work.
An additional 60lbs later, the outward manifestation of my death was showing.
I also didn’t account for brain drain and video game indulgence. I played countless hours of video games after coming home from work. The last thing I wanted to do was think more, so why not mindlessly button mash? Quick dopamine surges to the brain in the form of taking the imaginary hockey team you manage to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third year in a row. Besides, healthier more put together people my age play way more video games than I do.
Another outward expression I had died at some point, pacified by a fake digital world.
I hardly needed to be coached about not buying a new car. Used will always be the best bet, if I even need a car at all. Financially it would make sense. But by the time I was done test driving the newest model car it wasn’t even logic anymore. New car it was.
More outward expressions I had died along the way. Shane Claiborne would be mad.
And there were the denials.
When leaving work early on a Wednesday a co-worker asked where I was heading off to. Instead of answering plainly “I’m heading off to worship band practice at the church I attend,” I would say “oh, off to something I got to do.”
Not only did ‘something’ satisfy the curiosity of my colleague, but it satisfied my dying state.
When writing up a meet the staff blog post about me, one of the interview questions was “Tell us something about yourself that would surprise us?” I said that I have been playing the guitar since the age of seven.
But why, over two years into this job, would something so central to my core be a surprise to my co-workers? Why would this be something I need to hide from people?
What a weird surprise. I had slowly killed the musician in me the more I justified the pursuit of a career.
I don’t think I have to wonder too much if I had died.
Right now death is pissed off.
I came alive again. I woke up slowly inside safe, small community talking about several of the above items, while they were happening.
Only when you are alive do you know how dead you were.
All that preparation ahead of time in my life prior to my late 20’s didn’t go for not. All that digging into who Jesus really is and how I am to navigate this world was deeply embedded in me.
The problem was I didn’t allow any of it to release. I was letting death deal blows while life suffocated inside.
But now I am alive.
I am alive because the fast food line doesn’t control me anymore. The 60lbs put on is now 80lbs I’ve lost over the past two years.
The guitar isn’t just back in my hands, it never left, but it is truly a mark of worship to the God who gave me the ability to play in the first place.
My down time isn’t spent playing video games to decompress, but to continue self educating myself with books I’ve always wanted to read.
And death hates this so much.
I often wonder if I’ve already died.
Well, I did die.
But now. Now. I am alive.
I leave you with what the singer of mewithoutYou has to say about this song, not only what I took from it. It’s a song off an album about a circus train derailing in 1878. Hence why he mentions the animals in the following interview responding to Cardiff Giant:
“That song is a dialogue between the tiger and the peacock, both of whom stayed in captivity for different reasons. The tiger was very deliberate in remaining because of his sense of internal freedom regardless of external circumstances, but the peacock just feels kind of stuck. And the first time it’s the peacock saying “I often wonder if I’ve already died,” meaning a sense of having squandered her freedom—she missed the opportunity to escape and she’s stuck in this life that has no purpose or growth. And then the tiger responds in the second chorus saying the same thing, but it means almost the exact opposite—the tiger is wondering if the ego has been annihilated, if the self has been totally surrendered, and the tiger has been taken to some new, higher level of consciousness or reality. So it’s taking the same exact sentence and flipping it on its head.“
I was the peacock certainly. Death had me trapped and was convincing me I squandered my freedom. Give up. You’re dead.
But I’m the tiger now. Death got me for sure. But it never got me internally. Death can’t trap me anymore. I am surrounded by too much life, life abundant.
In between obtaining my bachelors degree and my masters degree, starting in the fall of 2007, I took a ‘year off.’ I graduated in four years and was only 21 and realized there was no rush just to keep going to school.
What followed was a year I didn’t exactly map out on my own but a time where I had one guiding principle:
Say yes to things you normally don’t say yes to.
Now of course, not things I should obviously say no to for the sake of self preservation, or against societal morality.
Instead, I am talking about things I was scared of doing, or used the lame excuse of “I’m busy with school,” or whatever other excuse I would use back then. Truly it was personality reasons down deep as I was timid about sticking my neck out.
Right away, my first curveball. In September our church gets a new youth pastor.
Me and him hit it off immediately. We are reading the same theologians. We have the same dry humor. We have the same sense of self deprivation. We both are sports nerds. We both are nerds.
And because of this bond that forms on month one of my year off, my cynicism for most things in the organized church starts to diminish.
My own personal hang ups about youth group growing up are greatly challenged when the youth pastor keeps asking me to volunteer. Actually I don’t think I have to be asked, I just simply start showing up on Wednesday nights to youth group (something I didn’t do when I was in the age range!) just to hang out since I have time on my hands and how much of a bond I was forming with the youth pastor.
Next thing you know I have a guitar in my hand helping lead worship at youth group…
…Next thing you know I am leading a small group bible study of college and career age folk, people my age or older, because our church didn’t have anything extra curricular for this age group. We start meeting in parks and our youth pastor and his wife’s apartment, forming bonds that never existed outside of church, bonds that didn’t exactly exist in church.
All because I said yes to filling a void I knew needed filled, even though I was pulling the classic ‘not me Lord, I am no preacher/leader/talker/etc.’ Classic. Because I said yes to something I told myself I wasn’t, our group of less than 20 twenty-somethings grew closer together spiritually and friendship wise.
Another thing I said yes to: I played guitar for the AA style recovery group at our church Monday evenings.
At those meetings is where I realized, perhaps, deeper and more profound church occurred. No slight to the rest of our church or any church. But people would get up and talk about their hurts, hang-ups, addictions, and all together sins. In front of other people! What a wild idea.
But in that setting was a trusting intimacy knowing everyone had each other’s back. As I was part of the worship band that kinda hung out in the corner as the main meeting would end and the small groups would break off, I often wondered why I didn’t go into the small groups. I was challenged to wonder why the whole church didn’t participate because the truth is we all could break down into this setting.
And I realized all the more by saying yes to helping other’s worship on a Monday night in a converted garage, they were helping instill in me a taste of what vulnerability really looks like, what coming together and confessing sins to one another means, and what healing and helping each other can do in each other’s lives.
And there was the cross country road-trip to San Diego from Detroit.
Well, as cross country as you can get by starting in Detroit (sorry east coast!).
Me and two friends packed a Pontiac Sunfire to the brim and set off for San Diego in February. A great time to go when you live in Michigan. Not only had I not taken a road-trip like that before, I had never been west of the Mississippi.
By saying yes to a road-trip I’d otherwise say no to because of ‘studies’ or ‘homework’ or other lame but important things, I got to experience travel and logistics and conflict resolution (tons of that with three guys in a Sunfire!).
All while seeing America the slow way. No fly over and jump to the heavenly beaches of San Diego. First we had to see Des Moines and Tulsa and Indianapolis in all their winter glory.
By saying yes to this trip my friend prodded me to go on (who was in college himself and simply took a week off), I saw the country instead of seeing pictures online of the country in the undergrad library.
And things I could have never planned for myself were molded into my heart at an incredibly impressionable time in my life.
Stepping up and serving a church body not out of fear but out of love to get people together.
Witnessing vulnerability first hand, which set the early stages for me becoming vulnerable myself in safe community later on.
Bonding with friends and problems solving their way across the open roads of America.
I said yes to not being afraid. And my dreams finally enlarge themselves.
I know you’ll wake up inside your mind
In order to discover the visions were true
And never had places to set themselves into
The dusted covered up screaming face
Of lost passions justified by pursuits
Entangled in the next best thing
The way things are not suppose to be
But in the ways other’s desires burn intently,
Forgive my lack of self care
It was never a duration of time I wanted
While sifting through debris piles
Justified by covering up a true person,
As I provide you papers which are built
Inside a system of discarding without learning,
As I want you to not want any of this,
I maintain these words are desperately crafted.
There is no way anything can speak volumes
About an entire life, my life, your life
Those who we never care for or choose to see
If there was never a rounding to the closest soul,
I’ll check the math again and skip over mistakes
I maintain in order to never see stark pasts
Inside multiple light sources shouting down
Shallow intimacy with a person no one knows
Why provide documentation stating
Zero passions built on top of decaying foundations
With lyrical rhythmic bullet points filling space
To get you faster to no where I would ever go,
Approaching the slumbering forgetful mind
Not paying attention to everyone Abba keeps putting
On beaten down walking paths I can’t find on a map
But which tread painful impressions at sacred destinations.
There’s an episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete titled Time Tunnel. It is one of my favorite episodes from one of my favorite childhood shows. In the episode, brothers Big Pete and Little Pete explain how every daylight savings night they take seriously the opportunity to travel back in time to relive the hour that just went by.
As a ten year old kid I was dumbfounded not at the idea we actually travel through time twice a year, but that I had never utilized fall back for this purpose: go back in time for an hour and make amends with how poorly you might have spent that hour. Or how great you spent it. Or just do it again. We are actually gifted a re-do annually.
If I am really good at one thing, like, I can put a flag on something and claim this is my territory and I just kill at it, it would be reflection. It’s not just because I studied history as an undergraduate, but because I study my past all the time. I am always reflecting. Even as a ten year old kid I recall writing journals with a sort of sacredness to the practice of reflecting on the day or big moment that just occurred.
I almost would charge myself with using too much of my present time’s energy towards reflection on my past. There is a balance of course. The practice of looking back at one’s mistakes, one’s victories, or just anything random from the past is an excellent discipline helping re-orient one’s self as to who they are and how’d they get here to the present.
We easily lose sight of how we got to the present. When we do we allow false narratives to hijack the truth of how we arrived in our present situation. By reflecting on the past in order to help course correct our present, we do a good service for ourselves by mentally confirming what actually happened versus what might have happened.
False narratives fill the void quickly and become terrible baggage, positive or negative false narratives the same, because it’s simply not how we got to the present. What we hope for, what I at least hope for with this exercise of intentional reflection, is to find the pivot points which were key and realize what I should or should not do the next time around.
But now I propose we shift this discipline of reflection forward to the future itself and time travel backwards to our present. What happens when we have the vision of our future self telling our present self how we got to our future condition? Couldn’t we use this information to engineer ourselves towards our future self?
What happens is a life-hack so powerful it is frightening when you embrace this exercise fully. The key is taking the same emotional ride when reflecting on a past event in the present, and transferring this same exercise to your future self reflecting on your present self.
Author Tim Ferriss stumbled upon this accidentally when he wrote a piece of fiction. It was a short story “about going skiing, retiring to the ski lodge to sip hot chocolate and wine, and ending up seated across the table from a wise old stranger….this stranger turns out to be my future self. It was a fun story to write, but – and this sounds a bit weird – I also got a lot of actionable, specific advice by going through the exercise. When I put my pen down, I was somewhat puzzled and thought, “I don’t know what I just did there, but it seems like a funky magic trick.”” (Tools of Titans, 443). His future self essentially encourages his present to get to his future self. It was a life-hack of epic proportions.
We are blessed with the incredible opportunity of having another day today. What we do with today will determine our future. Well duh! But I don’t believe we live presently aware enough most of the time to know we are defining our future moment by moment, choice by choice. We get to carve out maybe an inch or two of progress right now in this very moment, progressing towards a future self we desire.
The total mind blowing aspect to this visualization is to take the same clarity we get from looking at our past right now, and transfer this clarity to the future self looking at our current self. We end up feeling we have a better grip at how to handle bad or good things that happened in our past and what we can do to move forward.
By applying this same rush of optimism having seen the future for a moment, even if it is in Pete & Pete’s case only for a mere hour, we unlock the gravity of the powerful tool we posses. Our actions right now determine our future.
You get the opportunity to correct your future self. You get the opportunity to live out the good version of your future self. Right this moment, you can make the first positive incremental move towards who you need to become.
We all get the opportunity to go back in time. Pete & Pete were onto something every autumn.