One of the first Outward Bound courses I taught was a tough one. For a variety of reasons, my co-instructor and I found ourselves bombarded by problems that we couldn’t seem to solve. We were disheartened and, at times, saw no way to gain any traction. But we had an expedition to lead and so, despite the obstacles we faced, most days we just needed to shoulder our backpacks and keep walking.
One day when things seemed at their worst, we crossed a bridge above a mountain stream. The students trudged on ahead, but my colleague and I paused for a moment on the bridge, looking up the stream, at the water roiling toward us. The torrent threw spray in our faces as we stood at the upstream railings. It was mesmerizing, but also a bit ominous. The water pounded down unremittingly, surging on occasion but never easing.
In unison, my colleague and I turned and leaned against the downstream railing, watching the stream tumble away from us, its path charted by boulders in the streambed. Instead of assaulting us, the swollen creek plummeted away out of sight, coursing down its inexorable path to the river far below. My mood brightened immediately.
My co-instructor met my gaze and voiced what we were both sensing: “It lightens the load, doesn’t it, watching all that water just flowing away from us.” And it did. The stream was no less powerful, it hadn’t changed. But our perception of it had, and we were buoyed by the sight of the water disappearing from view. It made us realize how far we’d come, and gave us confidence that we’d survive the expedition. We watched for a while and then hoisted our packs and soldiered on.
This year has felt a bit like that oncoming stream: a relentless string of events, pummeling our optimism, cascading out of control. There was, for so many months, no end in sight. The medical community forecasts dark times ahead and as we moved into the literal darkest weeks of the year, we also entered the metaphorical darkest weeks; as our days grew shorter our worlds narrowed, the losses surged forth.
And yet it’s now clear that there is light at the end of this particular dark tunnel. The sun has begun its slow but steady return, giving us longer days, and the COVID vaccines offer us the promise of brighter lives ahead. Our problems aren’t over, and we will forever have to reckon with the tragic impact that COVID has had on our world, but if we shift our perspective downstream it lightens the load a bit. It now seems possible to envision the flood of COVID and 2020 subsiding. For a little while longer, at least, we just need to shoulder our burden and soldier on.