Is it our age, our times or generally our overreliance on comfort that takes away our resilience to the point that the only way to get back what was intrinsically hardwired is now only by willing ourselves onwards via multiple forms of self-help and self-development?
This weekend I went with my family for a walk in the New Forest. It was just reasonably cold, probably around 5° Celsius, it had been drizzling the entire day and the land was all a big slush of mud and swampy grass. The sights just as beautiful, nevertheless. The dogs were happy, the kids were happy, it follows that we were happy too.
At some point we ventured deep into the forest and kept going and going, till we ended up in what turned out to be the wrong side of the marshes. There was no immediate objective threat to losing our way, even if it was going to be dark soon. In fact, the only change to our planned walk was that we ended up going in a circle that took us 2 ½ hours instead of 1.
And yet, watching all those involved, I realised how different our attitudes to this impromptu detour were.
My husband’s ego took the first hit. What do you mean we got lost? He immediately entered the panic of a Scout that had just lost his Orienteering badge. When the map on his phone confirmed he had simply enjoyed his walk without worrying too much about the “right way”, the guilt hit even harder.
My let’s-stay-wild-and-in-touch-with-nature ego took the second hit. What sort nature-loving adults were we if we managed to get lost only half an hour away from a New Forest carpark? What do you mean we got lost, like proper wannabes? I hate it when jokes tend to turn serious in a split second. And I could already watch my impeccable planning skills washed away with the drizzle that had already turned into rain. All sorts of catastrophic scenarios started flashing before my eyes. No, it’s gonna be dark soon. The girls are already wet and will start complaining any minute now. I still have work to do at home and I can’t afford the extra couple of hours of playing young and careless.
Our adult ruminations took over each of the steps we were taking. From the two hours that we walked till we found the carpark again, I can only remember the thoughts that I was carrying along, heavier than any backpack, and none of the surroundings. None of the silence and the crisp air I had left home to look for.
However, it took exactly 10 minutes for my kids to decide that getting upset about something you can’t change is useless. Initially, they must have sensed all the worrying that we had projected on them. As children usually would, they joined the social game by displaying some concern themselves: Yes, their hands were cold. When does the sun exactly set? How much farther?
But, when the answers made it clear that we just have to keep going till we get there, they promptly remembered what they were there for: the freedom of the forest. So they started imagining they were both Katniss, making her way through the forest and the hunger games against all odds, slurping rain drops from the tree branches and trying to cover the traces she would leave in the mud.
A day later, that’s exactly what they still remember from our outing. Having to walk longer due to some change of plan is now only a distant flash of a hazy memory.
The adaptability reflex is there whole, in my tween kids. It’s only slightly flickering in us still, more and more anaemic every day. Replaced by the anxiety of all the diary commitments we set for ourselves, by all the priorities that somebody else decides for us on a daily basis, by the fear of just letting ourselves go. Somehow, most of the things that we call “life” are instead just keeping us busy and making us dread not being so.
We took this walk in the forest again and again throughout this year of repeated lockdowns, lost jobs, lost hugs and lost school lunches. With us adults willing ourselves forward rather than even momentarily enjoying the unexpected extra time with one another and ourselves. With them children proving over and over how much better they are at adjusting to a different way of living.
For an entire year I had to watch my own daughters to re-learn how to cope with plans A changing every day, plans B being postponed indefinitely and eventually with the very futility of making plans altogether.
I am grateful to have had them ask me “How much longer?” once in a while, only to get lost in play a second later, forgetting that there’s nothing we can do about it anyway.
What do you mean we got lost?
Look, there’s raindrops glistening on the branches, at least we’re not going to be thirsty.