A Wilderness Point of View

In Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus tells his daughter Scout that there’s a “trick” to getting along with all kinds of people: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” To put it differently, where we stand determines what we see. Where we stand determines what we understand. Making my way through the wilderness has altered my point of view. I now look at life from an entirely different vantage point.

To be candid, my growing-up years were quite sheltered and secure. My dad was an exceptional farmer and made a good living for our family. My mom saw to it that my sister and I never wanted for anything and were free to take advantage of all opportunities that captured our interest. Together, my parents provided an environment that was predictable, stable, and comfortable; I never encountered any dire life or death struggles that put my future in question. All in all, life had left me virtually untouched. I had a very limited understanding of how suddenly and drastically life can change.

That youthful ignorance began to change as I lived into my calling. I quickly learned that life is terribly fragile, often hanging by the barest of threads. People’s lives can quite literally fall apart overnight. Much of ministry takes place at the margins where chaos, suffering, and death thrive. I had been with people in those extremes but always as a witness and never a full participant. Whenever people admitted me into the circle of their sadness and suffering, I was always a guest. No matter how much I cared, I was an observer, on the outside looking in. Although I had a “feel” for what others endured, I never fully comprehended the depth of their experience.

The last several years of wilderness have changed much of that for me. Through the loss of my identity as a minister, I have struggled to know my place and purpose in this world. I have a better understanding for those who are worn out from trying to find a way and not being able to—through no fault of their own. Breaking my ankle in three places introduced me to what it’s like to live with the kind of sharp, jabbing pain that can jolt one awake in the middle of the night. Adding to my discomfort was the fear that I might lose my foot. For about four months, I held my breath, hoping the pain would ease and I would be spared amputation. As a result of this injury and recovery, every time I see someone shuffling along on a walker or wearing a boot, I wince. I know something of how exhausting it can be to get in and out of a car, shop for groceries, or go to the bathroom.

Through an unbelievably long dry spell of unemployment, I have had to cope with a loss of dignity and an accompanying loss of confidence and self-worth. I know how hearing “no” over and over and over again can grind a person down. I know what it’s like to be certain that I could do a job well yet never be given a chance. I no longer wonder why many simply give up. Through an onslaught of doubts and questions, I have walked in some of the darkest alleyways of faith. There have been many times when I wondered if trying to keep faith was worth it. Wouldn’t it be simpler and easier just to leave God out of it instead of trying to reconcile events with my pesky sense of calling? Through long seasons of waiting, I have lived with uncertainty from dawn till dusk. The security I had known for most of my days simply vanished. These were entirely new experiences for me.

Although new, these experiences have shifted my point of view. I like to think that I have indeed climbed into the skin—at least a little—of those who have a hard time getting out of bed every day. I like to think that where I’ve been has made me a little more understanding, compassionate, and gracious. My wilderness experience has certainly made me better equipped to “consider things from another’s point of view,” and maybe for now, that’s enough.

This post originally appeared in Driven: A Field Guide to the Wilderness by Bill Ireland, now available from Smyth & Helwys.

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