Hiking Forward Into the Season of Now

“There is something in October sets the gypsy blood astir: we must rise and follow her , when from every hill of flame she calls, and calls each vagabond by name.”–William Bliss

Fall is the perfect time for hiking, walking, or simply heading out-of-doors for any sort of physical activity.  The changing landscape, crisp air, and the earthy scents of damp soil, decaying plant matter, and the musky-sweet scent of drifted piles of discarded leaves invigorate the soul.  After sluggish months of heat and humidity, autumn’s sudden drop in temperature is enough to not only add bounce to our step and inspire movement, but also create stirrings within.

Fresh air has a way of plowing the mental landscape into a bucolic pasture of peace and positivity–if only for a short while.  What miraculous logic lies in this seasonal change.  It is as if, by Divine design, that fall provides us with an opportunity to elevate the spirit, boost the body, and clear the consciousness in preparation for the impending darkness of winter months.  

Walking this weekend along a favorite wooded path, I couldn’t help but follow these seasonal musings of my mind.  After a long, exceptionally challenging week, it felt both cleansing and healing to immerse myself in the quietude of nature.  No headset, nor blathering talk; no tedious tasks, nor irksome situations.  Like soaking in a warm, scented bubble bath, stepping onto the wooded path, I immediately felt submerged in the tranquil bathwater of autumn.

Before long, I was lost in the sounds of restless tree branches bouncing in the fall breeze, the humus scent of mulched debris, and the changing hues of leaves and grass.  Of course, my mind does not like to be quiet for long, and soon enough, childlike tantrums for attention interrupted my equanimity.  Without any warning, my mind began stumbling and bumbling through past events instead of anchoring to the present and peace of the surrounding natural world.

“I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house.”–Nathaniel Hawthorne

Isn’t memory a curious process?  You can forget about an event, experience, or moment. Then suddenly, as if tripping over a tree root along a smooth forest pathway, you tumble head first right into the past.  Like the long roots of trees, past episodes can be found along our life path, but often we are so focused on moving forward, we overlook those rooted memories that make up the tree of our life. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless we haven’t made peace with certain past events.

In the ideal world, falterings into the past can be easily side-stepped, allowing us to keep moving ahead with ease.  Like the broken limb of a tree, these past happenings may have left us feeling as if a piece of our life was fragmented.  Sometimes, these can be small, mendable, events. Other times they are life-altering occurrences that sever ties with a friend, love, or even family member.  Divorce, death, loss of job/home/income, and other hurts can all leave us feeling as splintered as a proverbial tree trunk. 

At the time, it feels as if we will never be whole again; never able to grow, much less thrive.  However, like the maple tree that lost a major branch in a winter ice storm, our hearts, given time, do heal at the source of the break.  It may take several seasons to fully recover, but similarly to the mighty maple, once recovered, we find we can tap into the sweetness of life again.

Some triggered memories, like a fallen log across the path, can seemingly be foreseen well ahead of time.  It could be a special celebration, a family or friend gathering/reunion, a party, or other organized event.  We see it well in advance–the potential to bump into branches of our past.  Therefore, we deliberate, strategize, and plan how we will not allow ourselves to be tripped up, to fall into past, negative behaviors, or other self-defeating notions.  If we’re fortunate, we trek through the event without a single obstacle tripping us up, and we wonder why we wasted all that time worrying. At other moments, we repeatedly flounder through multiple encounters without ever gaining a steady foothold due to overthinking or over-efforting.

Other memories we stumble across can be simple knee and/or palm scrapers–just a little momentary scuffle.  They are the unforeseen life encounters in which we come face-to-face with our past.  Like that hidden rock along a regular walking path, unearthed by heavy rainfall, we’re confidently moving forward when suddenly a buried memory triggers a brief, but sharp tumble.  Momentarily we are once more wounded, lost in the temporary feeling of pain, but quickly rise, wipe off the proverbial dirt of the past, and keep hiking on.

Then there are those rocky memories.  Those awkward, cringe-worthy moments of impulse, illogical, or otherwise preposterous life hiccups.  Like the rough part of a well-worn rocky path, all lives have these times. In fact, these memories, when randomly run across, can sometimes leave you doubled over with laughter as you fumble through recollections of those bumpy reminiscences. 

Aw, the path of life, like any good hike in the woods, is full of thorny patches, toppling obstructions, and adversarial pitfalls.  Nonetheless, our trails also meander through lush fields of golden moments, wound ‘round bends of colorful times, and over walkways of unexpected joy and bliss.  Through the seasons of memories, all the good and the bad, our life paths keep moving us forward. Thrusting us into the now of our lives. 

Clearing my mind, and shaking out its detritus of the past, I once more returned to the present moment of the autumnal walk. I felt the air brush softly against my cheek and watched a chubby, round-eyed raccoon waddle away from me. I left the past behind on that trail, decided to let the future take of itself, and began to once more soak up the present moment of the fall goodness, one glorious step at a time.  Oh, how I love October.

“I’m so glad we live in a world where there are Octobers.”–L. C. Montgomery, Anne of the Green Gables

All Work and No Play

Walking into work this past week, I began to make my way up the flights of stairs lined with windows.  Above the alley filled with cars, a squirrel scurried along a wire.  I paused long enough to observe this rodent. It scooted forward at an energetic pace, then paused, precariously balancing above the unsuspecting vehicles, then scampered along a bit further until it was out of sight. 

Continuing my ritualistic workday ascent, I reflected on the delicate balancing act of the trapeze-squirrel and the ways in which it reflected our current work culture. Since the onset of COVID, the demands and pressure upon the labor force have greatly increased. From longer work hours to added levels of responsibility, many workers feel a lack of control over their work environment–which are often becoming more socially toxic.  Additionally, workers frequently cite insufficient reward, a lack of fairness, and even a conflict of values with the ever increasing work demands.  It’s no wonder that many workers choose to walk away. Unfortunately, the downside for those who choose to remain is that they are merely expected to pick up the extra workload, usually without any appropriate compensation or support.

A squirrel on the playground at my own worksite in the evening sun. There is actually another squirrel nearby, but it dropped out of sight just as I clicked the photo.

To add further fuel to the fire, complaints of worker burnout are often met with the belief that there is something innately wrong with the employee–that the worker is “not the right fit,” or “not a team player,” rather than examine the workplace culture. This has led to one of the highest levels of “quit-rates” since the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics began keeping records” according to their April 2021 data.   In fact, based on a growing body of evidence, it’s looking as if those business leaders who do not seriously rethink how they approach the workplace culture will most likely face issues with worker retention and shrinking work pools, leading to decreased productivity and/or unreliable timelines. 

While the term “burnout” has been around for decades, the World Health Organization only recently identified worker burnout as a real phenomenon beginning in 2019.  According to Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, worker burnout is caused by high levels of stress causing the worker to feel cynical and distant from their job which in turn affects their productivity, and more importantly, their personal health. He believes that burnout is a “serious health hazard”

Meanwhile the squirrel’s health is at risk as hawk waits above for his opportunity to attack.

“No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease.”–Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General

To add further support to the WHO’s identification of worker burnout phenomenon, Winona State University has identified five distinct stages of burnout.  These stages include: 

The Honeymoon Stage:  The excitement of the new job/role/position does not allow the worker to realize their workload is unrealistically large as it can be easily written-off due to the newness of the job, but can soon enough push the worker into the next stage. 

The Balancing Stage:  The employee begins to struggle with life-work balance. As the scales tilt more towards work, fatigue, sleep disturbances, and early signs of dissatisfaction lead to self-detrimental, coping behaviors, such as increased drinking, eating, smoking, and other forms of escapism.  With continued worksite pressure, the employee is nudged closer to burnout.

The Chronic Stage:  The worker is now often filled with persistent anger/resentment, depression, chronic exhaustion, physical illness, and so forth. 

The Crisis Stage:  Without intervention, the worker is overwhelmed by feelings of jadeness, powerlessness, pessimistic thinking, and ready to walk away from not only the worksite, but their chosen professional field.  

The Enmeshment Stage: If this same worker remains, they move into “enmeshment,” a point in their career where they may be held in high regard by their coworkers, but on the inside, the worker feels like another cog-in-the-wheel, unhappy, and trapped–stuck in an unfulfilling role that leaves them dissatisfied.

“Burnout is nature’s way of telling you you’ve been going through the motions your soul has departed.”–Sam Keen

Finally sensing the danger, the squirrel runs away from the work site.

Unfortunately, management, administration, and/or owners can often be tone-deaf to their workers’ heightened levels of stress.  In fact, according to research, the self-help industry and employers appear to blame the workers. Therefore, many workers indeed accept the blame without question, and those workers who do express concerns to management, are often rebuffed with off-hand comments or insincere promises, such as:

“Working long hours never hurt anyone. I like to work long hours.”  

“I still find time to do x, y, or z, with all the demands I have.” 

“It’s only for the short-term, and you’re so good at what you do.” 

Other management teams will offer token trinkets, swag, and so called “social” events/meals–with the expectation that workers don’t break to enjoy the event or meal, but either grab-and-go-back-to-work or remain longer at the work site with co-workers.  Some businesses hold annual health or wellness meetings in which employees are instructed to regularly incorporate self-care practices, such as deep breathing, yoga, exercise, or take fresh air breaks, but in practice, the business maintains its habits of scheduling back-to-back meetings, emailing their workers late into the evening or throughout their weekend, and/or remains committed to the expectation that workers pick up an extra shift or assume an addition role with little to no opportunity for those self-care breaks, much less compensation.  In fact, the culture of many work-sites seem to have an unspoken creed that working longer hours with an increased load and no breaks is often seen as a badge of honor and an esteemed level of productivity. 

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

“Even the loveliest shoulders can bear but so much.”–Jill Alexander Essbaum

Worker burnout is, as one researcher writes, a “canary in the coalmine”  If the canary cannot breathe, it is not the canary’s fault but the coalmine, and so it is with burnout.  While there are some actions within the workers control, such as “setting boundaries” to the degree possible, attempting to get adequate rest, nutrition, and/or engaging in enjoyable activities outside of work–these practices can only go so far.  The less input/control workers have for their length of work hours, the type of activities in which they must engage, and little sense of fairness, the more likely burnout will continue. 

As I see it, this brave new work environment requires creative solutions. Enticing job fairs with their flashy flyers, free food, and dressed-up off-site location are merely bowls under the roof of a leaky attic–the leaking holes still remain within the structure, slowly eating away at the stability of the framework–but do not address the real issue.  

Photo by Phil Bearce on Pexels.com

Reflecting back to the squirrels, researchers know that squirrels are most active early in the day as they scatter collections of food in a variety of spots to stave off hunger during more meager times of the year. However, these active periods are also filled with moments of free-spirited play.  While young squirrels play the most, adult squirrels daily engage in some form of play, be it solitary or interactive.  As the day progresses, squirrels begin to wind down and spend up to 60% of their time sleeping. 

It is not unusual, at the end of my workday, to find several squirrels with their lively chitterings, dipping and diving with one another in a rambunctious game of chase.  Their high spirited antics never fail to make me smile in the slant of the evening sun. If I observe long enough, they take breaks here and there to gather food, dart away to some unseen cache, and quickly zip back for more frolicsome play.  I can’t help but wonder if the workplace could learn a lesson or two about what makes a healthy and productive work environment from our fellow squirrels.

Photo by NO NAME on Pexels.com

In Pursuit of The Meaningful Path

“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”–Viktor E. Frankl

If you are familiar with my writing, you may have deduced that I have a significant appreciation for the Ritter Park Rose Garden. Throughout the year, I try to visit this local garden at least once per month, but more often if possible.  There is certain pleasure I derive from observing the various transformations of these bushes through each season.  I enjoy noticing the way their blossoms alter and progress through the seasons, and I even relish their stark, cut-back, bloomless appearance in winter. Throughout a large portion of the year, most bushes are not picture-perfect, but that fact does not take away from the positives each visit offers me.

It is not, per se, my attraction to roses that draws me to this garden, for I would happily regularly visit any formally planted botanical garden were there others within close proximity to my home. Rather, I have regard, not only for the miraculous seasonal changes provided by Mother Nature, but also an admiration and acknowledgement of its caregivers.  I have often encountered these seemingly tireless keepers of the garden tending to the needs of the plants in all seasons of weather and range of temperatures.  These garden custodians consistently employ their knowledge, skill, and attentiveness even though they most likely get paid a minimum income for implementing.  

“It’s the time you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important…You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.”–Emily Esfahani Smith

I was reminded of the talented rose gardeners while listening to bits of a podcast, ironically enough, while jogging through Ritter Park after a quick walk through of the rose garden.  The person interviewed held the basic belief that happiness is an elusive and ephemeral feeling that is not sustainable for long periods of time.  In fact, this self-proclaimed expert maintained that much shame and feelings of “less than” are associated with not feeling happy all of the time.  The same person further added that living a meaningful life was far more satisfying and sustainable than buying into the belief that one should be happy all of the time.

After about ten or so minutes of hearing this expert’s philosophical point of view, I turned off the podcast and let my mind search for greater understanding, or should I say meaning, as my feet continued their thump, thud, thump along the crushed gravel of the Ritter Park path.  My mind turned, examined, and played with this intriguing thesis.  I recalled that at one point there was a brief spike in marketing purpose-driven books and other media content, but when scrolling through current popular self-help authors, media influencers, and publications, many of these outlets pitch the if-only-you-do-this then you can lead a happy life.  This philosophy often focuses heavily on receiving and acquiring for the purpose of gratifying personal needs/wants rather than giving to or focusing on the needs of others.

The podcast had a point: there are hard times in life.  You, or a loved one, will get sick.  There is a possibility that you might lose and/or have to change your job and/or life role.  This may require learning to live in a new way, perhaps even in a new geographical location.  Income may be lost, gained, and even lost again.  Accidents will happen.  Loved ones will die.  I am told that even pandemics can occur!  The point is, none of us can always be happy.  In the words of the band R.E.M., “Everybody hurts, sometimes.”

Reflecting over the past few years, I realized the level of uncertainty, fear, and sadness many of us, myself included, have experienced due to COVID.  However, as I mulled over the podcast interview, I realized that at some point this past year, something changed within me.  In spite of experiencing some fairly significant discomfort due to changes and losses, I find myself once more satisfied with my work this year–even during this, my 35th career year in education.  If you had asked me last year, or even the year before, if I was content with my work, I would have told you that I was ready to quit, ready to walk away from it all, and look for a new path.  

“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”–Carl Jung 

However, this year, in spite of facing numerous challenges, my continued role as a teacher once more seems fulfilling–in spite of not having near the financial rewards as many of my peers with 35 years of experience in their chosen vocations.  What has been the difference?  The podcast thesis hit the nail on the head: it’s the meaning I derive once more from my work–which had been greatly reduced throughout the virtual experience.  This school year, I can once again witness firsthand the difference my job makes, especially those lightbulb moments, when a student’s face lights with the joy of new found knowledge or greater understanding.  While not every day is filled with those illuminating moments, and I am certainly not happy in every moment; I know what I do benefits the students–that is the difference.  

Nonetheless, not everyone can have a career from which they derive great meaning, but there are still multiple opportunities from which to acquire meaning. From parenting to volunteering, to various roles, responsibilities, and personal pursuits, there are many ways which any of us can create more meaningful ways of living–even if you aren’t “happy” every moment in which you are participating. Consider parenting, for example. Most parents, if they are honest, will confess to not always being happy.  However, when asked if their role as a parent adds meaning to their life, most will say, “yes.” Otherwise, who would want to become a parent?  

“As much as we might wish, none of us will be able to go through life without some kind of suffering. That’s why it’s crucial for us to learn to suffer well.”–Emily Esfahani Smith

 Part of our unique human experience is undergoing a wide range of emotions, so why should we believe we are “less than” because we are not, per se, happy.  Perhaps, as a human collective, especially in the first world, if we put greater emphasis on the development of fortitude, perseverance, and stamina–which are especially important skills during challenging times–we might not feel like a so-called “failure” when we are experiencing negative emotions, such as sadness, grief, loss and so forth.  

Suffering is a built in part of life.  While not all suffering is the same, and the aftermath varies from experience to experience, the fact that suffering temporarily robs one of happiness does not equate with a less meaningful life.  Rather than constantly searching for sources of happiness, we might all better benefit from participating in more meaningful activities, especially those that focus on contributing to others.  Then, when the trials come, and you know they will, you can reflect back to those meaningful moments and know that once you get through this tough time, you can live with purpose once more.  We cannot always be happy, but we can have a life filled with moments that matter and make a difference.