Yesterday afternoon I was sliding feet first down a rock face, trying to get downstream before dusk. Some minutes (an hour?) before that, as I waded with my three friends through a pool in the slot canyon, my energy flagging and water running low, I said a prayer for some kind of help.
Some months before that I had prayed for some kind of connection at all as the pandemic lockdown continued on into its nth endless month, my early sharp-thinking advice long having eroded away against the months of time living and working in my one bedroom apartment alone. And some months before that I had simply prayed for some kind of deliverence from my monstrous relationship with any kind of quick keyboard interaction loop with other people on the computer (nevermind social media).
But this is an essay about navigation.
On Tuesday I found myself unexpectedly thrust into the center of a roommate crisis. I got some imperfectly delivered criticism; I responded to it imperfectly. And all of a sudden the five of us became dramatically out of whack.
Oh, I can't tell you how bad I wanted to fix this. First, I'm a people pleaser. I can't stand people being upset with me, and I particularly obsess over the approval of women (which was the case in this situation). But second, the whole reason we were out there was to live together as a real group, not as a set of disparate people all dicking around on their computers independently. And this threatened to kill that whole vibe.
I pilot my way through rocky situations like this by trying to ascertain what the right thing to do is on any given day. Finding that thing is sometimes straightforward, but sometimes one gets caught up in error on one of two sides of the problem: the past, or the future.
The past will clog your brain with guilt; having done a bad thing is no good, and forgetting or pretending it didn't happen is even worse. But ruminating on it will leave you stuck.
And then you can get stuck on the future side, too, simply by trying to predict or control phenomena that are unknowable. As thinking people we are of course cursed with the ability to engage in a fair amount of futuresight, but how many of us have projected our imagination onto the world instead?
So I try to keep it simple. I see what I see, and I talk to others to see if they have a different perspective. I talk to friends. I talk to family. I talk to God. I listen, listen, listen. And then, when the time comes, I try to do something.
I did that here! I made amends. Or tried to! I identified some things I did wrong, and I owned up to them one on one and in front of the group. I contacted this roommate to talk. To listen! Oh, how it did not work. And the situation festered; we could no longer plan, or have group discussions. Bad spirits and bad blood were there, and no one seemed ready to budge on anything.
Anyway, this is sort of the point at which all of us except the roommate in question decide to go out on a pleasant afternoon hike down a creek in our area.
This hike progressed from civilized territory to fisherman's territory, to rough trails, to no trails at all, and then finally to the sort of slot canyons I found myself shivering my way through in the waning hours of the afternoon.
Undoubtedly the hardest person to talk to when I'm trying to navigate is God. Not that people don't make it hard: some of my friends are argumentative and stubborn; some have energy that far outstrips me, leading them to run further ahead than is safe. But they all have the advantage of being at least on the same level as me.
God, by comparison, is sometimes a motherly caretaker, sometimes a fatherly disciplinarian, sometimes a voice speaking in my ear or dreams, sometimes the voice of a friend, or a conflict with a friend or with nature. God is greater than me, and with many aspects; God eludes my ability to understand or explain. But when I strive to know God as a personal friend, I find what I need.
Anyway, so I'm out in the wilderness praying sincere prayers. And the silly thought does occur to me: what if I don't make it out of here? On dry land I know intellectually that we were never further than a few miles from people, and that if things had become truly dire we could always have spent the night huddled up against each other and hydrated ourselves off of creek water, but my certainty flagged in the moment. Maybe this is where things end for me.
"Well," I thought. "I've tried to follow God this far. I'll have to cross this gap sometime. I suppose I have to keep following."
And I did, and we made it past the rock canyons, and as daylight was starting to fade and we were just at about our limit we finally ran into a person: a nice lady with an unusual first name who saved our tails and drove us to our vehicles.
Why was she there on the other side of the creek? She told us she didn't know: normally she wouldn't have been there so late, but she lingered for no reason she could say.
And hey, I know this is exactly the kind of story people tell about God answering prayers and all that. And I'm a people pleaser: some folks think that is silly, some folks think that it is not, and I don't want to disagree with either of those groups. But it's also sort of beside the point to my view.
The world is not a clear and present thing. As people, we're more like navigators on the ocean than we are hikers following a trail. Our lives aren't lived on the earth; they're lived in the ether. We live in our dreams, floating along finding our way through an ocean of possibilities and people. And as woo as that may sound, it's a concrete truth once I begin to ask myself questions like, "How did I get here? Where am I going?"
And any ocean navigator can tell you that you need a fixed point to navigate by.
We were overjoyed when we got to our car. We had one of those wonderful dinners where someone (the roommate in question, in this case) cooks you carbs and meat and you just don't care, it's so good. And we forgot all about the roommate dilemma.
But then, of course, we wake up the next morning, still shaken by the experience, and the roommate dilemma is still there. The bad vibes between us are still suppurating. It's unclear what will happen if we finally bring it up and have it out in front of the whole group.
And what do you do then? What will happen? How can we bring about this future repair of the group dynamic we want? Or, alternatively, the future where it's ruptured and we come up with a decent plan going forward from there?
Well, who knows? The ground is not fixed, after all.
Gotta keep moving forward, though. Gotta do the next right thing.