Thursday, September 16, 2010

AT 2: The trail as personality test

There are many mysteries on earth that remain to be solved--is the planet actually getting warmer or did Al Gore make it up? what will stop cancer from attacking the body? what exactly is going on with Donald Trump's hair? Some of these may never be solved.

But one of the most underappreciated mysteries for me is that of human personality. People are so very fascinating for their lack of predictability, for the way in which you think you know what to expect and are so often proven wrong, or at least slightly off. People are surprising and it is this lack of boring in people that makes each day new and interesting. I think this is as true of ourselves, at least it's true for me. My own responses to a given situation or circumstance surprise and confound me almost on a daily basis, but we try to simplify this: "I know who I am. I'm an introvert or an extrovert, an athlete or a bookworm, a cat person or a dog person, a person who prefers Fritos or Doritos."

I've found that in extreme circumstances, we find out things that might escape us or might stay buried on a day-to-day basis. On an early mission trip in my campus ministry days, we took a group of high school students on a trip to New York to do a variety of service projects with The Salvation Army. The days were all scheduled, but circumstances often overtook planning and at various points throughout the day, surprises came. A meal was not available when we planned on it. A task was harder than originally thought. New York traffic derailed our schedule. In the group, one of the guys was about the most amiable, friendly, constantly laughing people you'd ever meet. He was easy in social situations and often brought groups of strangers together with his ability to put everyone at ease.

So it was a shock, when the combination of fatigue, hunger and unmet expectations made a monster out of this guy. Under those circumstances, which are integral to any mission trip I've experienced, he would become cantankerous and irritable, to the point of a heavily negative impact on the group dynamics. He was like a different person. Feed him a sandwich, happy-go-lucky came back almost instantly. But it's one of my singular memories of that trip.

But I digress, the Appalachian Trail (or I suppose any circumstance like spending four days and nights hiking in the woods without the usual comforts of life) represents an extreme challenge. For me and for the guys I went with, it was a completely different experience from our everyday, kids at home, to do lists and emails at work and relative comfort of a suburban experience. It pushed things to the surface that aren't always there. Have no fear, guys, I'm not going to go into some kind of trail-born psycho-analysis on each of you (although I will share some thoughts at that end). What happened on the trail stays on the trail (mostly).

By now, most of you have probably stopped reading anyway, but I'll try to put my discoveries on my own personality into five categories:
1. I like to reach goals that are set before me
2. I am driven in short bursts of action, but I can struggle with long hauls
3. I crave social interaction, but I need a quotient of alone time daily
4. I can miss the forest for the trail if I'm not careful
5. I should stop even attempting to multi-task

1. I like to reach goals that are set before me
On the trail, our group did not immediately designate a leader. We didn't have a set order 1-5 as we walked largely single file (it's all the trail allows in most spots). So in the early going, various people would find themselves in the lead. As I said in my earlier post, the terrain was constantly changing, with a barrage of ascents and descents. We were rarely walking on level ground for more than a few hundred yards. When your daily itinerary is 10 miles, this gives the feeling of always climbing or going down a hill.

As we made our way up some these climbs, it was not uncommon for someone to need a break along the way. What I found was that I could not bring myself to stop in the middle of hill. Our trip organizer, Pretty Boy had done a great job providing us with an itinerary that detailed the elevations of key points along the route. Therefore, we had a pretty good sense of how much work it would be to get from point A to point B and then on to points C, D and E. If I knew there was more hill to climb, I had an irresistible motivation to get to the top, regardless of exhaustion, physical pain, frustration or any other obstacle. I would rather push through to the goal and then rest, rather than stopping at 850 feet if I knew we had to make it to 1100.

I think this is true off the trail too. When a goal is in front of me, I am bothered as long as it is not completed. This can be a professional hazard given that I am not a house painter or a bank teller. I leave unfinished work on my desk every day, goals to complete. I come home to the same--as someone observed when we were doing a lot of work to prepare our home to move into it, "You know the list is never done, don't you?" On a day-to-day basis, I've had to learn to live with goals not met in one 24-hour period, but the feeling still unnerves me. On the trail, I could at least say "good, that hill has been climbed." Of course on the trail, any up generally implied a down was coming and vice versa. I was also far more comfortable and much more regularly out in front heading up than I was heading down.

2. I am driven in short bursts of action, but I can struggle with long hauls
This point is related to the first, but it's a detail that seems to matter. I know a lot of goal-oriented people and there are different approaches to goal achievement. Some of my friends and colleagues seem able to undertake every single element of a task, down to the most minute detail and go to town on all of it. In the equine world, I guess this would equate to the workhorses, the show horses and the racehorses. There are plenty of times that I have said to myself, "I wish I were more of a workhorse, a plodder instead of a prancer."

On the trail, it was more evident than anywhere else: give me an extreme challenge that is short-term in nature and I'm an animal. Give me a stretch of 2+ miles of level terrain that all starts to look the same and I'm given to boredom, frustration, lack of focus and complaining. Perhaps, it owes to the gypsy lifestyle of Salvation Army officer families, but I can do virtually anything for a short period of time as a means to an end, but the long hauls just don't do it for me in the same way.

This is not a comfortable thing for me to admit, but if you know me well, you're probably saying, "Drew, you're the last one to see this?" This obviously is a matter of prayer for me, to be more sustained and faithful in all of the endeavors of my life. Sprinting is fine, but the stuff that matters is all the long haul stuff that occurs sans spotlight and over months and years not moments or snapshots.

3. I crave social interaction, but I need a quotient of alone time daily
My need/want/desire to share just about every aspect of life with the people around me has all kinds of roots, with two primary causes, I'm sure. Being an identical twin has undoubtedly formed my collaborative nature. Since my brief stint in utero, I've had the opportunity to check ideas and bounce things off another human being. I can just imagine those conversations "Dude, what do you think these things are? There's 5 of them, wait, there's 5 on this side and 5 on the other one. By the way, what do you think it's like out there?"

The other major factor was having to begin the school year at a new school no less than 6 out of 12 grades. You're either going to succeed as a social animal or become invisible and fade into the lockers. It is well-documented that I was a high school loser, but at least I got noticed, but I digress.

We saw several through hikers on the trail and they were moving. These guys with a couple of months growth on their 20-something jawlines would barely look up at us when they passed. They were always alone and more than a little bit creepy. As it turns out, some of their lack of social skills might owe to an insane "through hiker thing" known as the Connecticut Challenge. I'm not sure which sadist dreamed up this notion, but the Connecticut Challenge is to hike all 53 miles of the Appalachian Trail that cross the state in one day. We assume that success is based on a 24-hour period as a day, because we're essentially talking a double marathon up and down hills without over-enthusiastic volunteers passing out water every mile or so. Every hill is heartbreak hill for these loons (without the Wellesley College students).

But also, a lot of these guys seem to be through hiking solo. Our group agreed that A. we're not sure we'll ever be through hikers and B. we could not do it alone. Even Bill Bryson needed Stephen Katz. I really enjoyed hiking with four other guys, two of whom I knew well to begin with and two of whom, I really got to know on the trail. Five was the right size and we had the right guys. But it's another one of those trail surprises. When you're hiking with four other people, you are virtually never alone. Not to be graphic, but even life's typically private moments occur in close proximity to your trail buddies. Enough said. There is no commute (however short) where you're in your private bubble of a car. There are no errands to run alone (filtering water requires a minimum of three people). The entire time spent on the trail is spent together. One always has the option of hiking ahead or dropping back from the group, but that's a span of no more than 100 feet either way. You kind of have to stick together.

At one point I admitted to Doc that I didn't mind being deterred from sleeping in the shelter with Creepy Paul (as we came to call a through hiker who was all too willing to shove over and let us join him in the cramped AT shelter one night) and that I was actually kind of happy to sleep in my tent because it afforded me a few moments of isolation from the group. He responded quite naturally, "Oh so you're an introvert (we were still getting to know each other at that point)." I laughed and said no, that I am an undeniable extrovert, but that one of the requirements (call it a survival tactic or a coping mechanism or whatever) of that for me is that I have to be able to get alone for a portion of each day and occasionally in longer chunks of time. I lose my effectiveness as a social animal if I can't shut it off for a little bit from time to time.

Now I'm not sure this was some deep self-revelation on the trail. I already knew this, but it manifested itself in this sort of silly way. What brought me comfort was the separation offered by a very thin piece of nylon that created my own space. We could still hear everything coming from each other's tents: Pretty Boy checking emails on his Blackberry, Doc's updates about his FB status updates, Pouch's groaning and complaining about his impending demise and the Kid's snoring. Even so, the tent was this refuge. Everything we carried into the woods went into the tents with us, save our food which was strung up in a tree to prevent bears from devouring us in our sleep (try closing your eyes on that note!). So there was this all-encompassing self-sufficiency to that space. Everything was within arm's reach. My sleeping pad was comfortable and it was so gratifying to close the zipper and know my eyes were not far behind as sleep came readily on the trail after that first fitful night. After 14-15 hours enjoying the group, it felt good to have space that was only mine. It was refreshing to have those few moments.

I enjoy a solo day hike as one of those longer periods of isolation that I need from time to time, but I would never have undertaken this challenge alone. I just needed to get away from those guys for a moment or two each day to tackle the next.

4. I can miss the forest for the trail if I'm not careful
Here is a dirty little secret about the Appalachian Trail for those who have heard of it, but not hiked it. As romantic as it sounds to have a trail that runs from GA to ME, as storied as the creation and maintenance of it is, after a mile or two, the AT can become a bit monotonous. There are wonderful views (perhaps twice a day on a 10-mile section), but for the most part, it is a trail in the woods. In order to be effective at making mileage, you have to get into a zone where each part becomes like the next and you make your way on the trail. I've mentioned elsewhere that our group would actually go some 40 minutes sometimes without uttering a word to each other. In part, this is because there was nothing noteworthy on which to comment.

In this way, the trail can lull a hiker to sleep. Because of the unchanging surroundings at eye level and the constantly changing terrain for the feet and legs, it is easy to let your focus narrow to the foot or two of trail in front of you only. Most of the time, you don't miss a thing. But plenty of times, you can miss some critter in the woods, a unique rock formation, or some other rarely seen element of God's creation.

The other thing is that the tasks of the trail demand your attention. One morning, we were filtering water near our campsite, right on the banks of the Housatonic River. We were pretty trail-worn by this point, so we were primarily focused on the task at hand. One of us pumping the filter, another holding the rubber tubes in place under water and in the bottle, lose focus and you lose vacuum and the process takes much longer. It occured to me that under other circumstances, we might pull the car over with the family at this spot to have a picnic, it was so picturesque and so different from our normal views in the Boston, Philly and New York metro areas. And yet, none of us were looking around at the scenery, we were entranced by clean water flowing into bottles and bladders (hiking not human). Gorgeous cranes were in the water and sitting on nearby branches. The river was babbling by. It was a beautiful scene.

I recognize this tendency in my day to day life as well. I am so busy so much of the time, that I will spend lots of time, energy and focus on a task and completely miss moments of beauty and grace and perfection that occur in close proximity. In this sense, the Task List and the Trail are related. What we have to accomplish daily threatens to undermine our ability to enjoy what we could or should daily. I have been guilty of this with colleagues, community members and family as work demands mount up. I want to be sure to maintain the dual focus on what I have to do each day and what I should notice, but could miss--a child begging to read or play ball or ride bikes with me, a colleague who is celebrating or hurting, even the fruition of the work I've been doing can escape my attention for the sake of the next task if I'm not careful.

5. I should stop even attempting to multi-task
I'm not smart enough to multi-task. Just yesterday, I was attempting to talk to someone and drink coffee at the same time, and neither came out the way I had planned.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the trail is a sanctuary from the tyranny of multi-tasking that most of us bow to every day. This is true because it's impossible to do more than one thing out there. This resulted in a tremendous feeling of relaxation for me by week's end. I loved having a single focus.

I find that in ministry and in my current position (is it ministry? there's an entirely separate post), I find that there are constant demands vying for attention. The trail reminded me that I am not gifted to multi-task. I excel and feel best when I am doing one thing at one time, not five. I suspect that this is true of more people than like to admit it, but I know it's true of me. I should do what I'm doing and complete it before trying to move on. It's been interesting to try that in the office since I've returned, but is even more important at home. Parenting 101: you can not give your kids the attention they want if you're trying to accomplish something else simutaneously. I'm making the most of their 2-3 waking hours that I get time with them daily. Folding laundry and fixing the newell post can wait.

And now for what I've learned about the personalities of my fellow hikers. This is probably not fair as I have not asked their permission to do this, but then again, that's what comments are for, right?
Pretty Boy -- A coach. A comfortable, understated, confident leader. We may not always like heirarchies, but someone has to play the role of leader in any group. He was private and one-on-one with his coaching sessions, not a dirll sergeant, challenging and encouraging and did a lot of preparatory work that the rest of us didn't have to. Thanks.
Pouch -- An overcomer. I observed my brother-in-law in a new way on the trail. My previous understanding of him was simple: an easy, master delegator who always knows what to do and doesn't know failure, even on a small scale. The trail challenged him, injured him and threatened him. What I saw instead of someone who doesn't see obstacles, is someone who faced then subdued and ulitimately conquered the obstacles to persevere.
Doc -- An essential. The person I thought I vaguely knew was an athlete, a casual, quick-with-a-joke and a smile kind of guy. The person I got to know is a broadly knowledgeable, amazingly resourceful team-builder who formed an essential glue to the group. He is a credible expert, a hilarious storyteller, a supportive friend and a person you just want to be around.
The Kid -- A boy scout. The kid came extremely well-prepared with the lightest pack and a very good understanding of what it took to survive a week in the woods. He was quick to serve the group and slow to call out his own struggles--just put his shoulder down and went for it.

Ultimately, the trail was not the critical factor in my enjoyment of the hike. It was about the people that I shared the trail with and how the trail helped me to get to know all of us, including myself a little bit better.

Part 3 to come: The trail as metaphor for spiritual journey.

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