On Backpacks and Heroes

Everyone seems to be in agreement: something is wrong. We spend our days in screen-induced fogs, moving from one clip and (possibly) interesting thought to the next, from one tweet to one instagram post, consuming, consuming, consuming.

Of course, there are always a select few who don’t see any downside in this: if you’re in that select few, the remainder of this article will be nothing more than an exercise in empathy. But if you’re in the majority of people I talk to and read, you see that something nefarious and insidious lurks behind our screen time. It’s doing troubling things to our brain, possibly rewiring it in ways similar to a drug addict’s, contributing to loneliness and jealousy, and, much later, memory problems.

That’s to skip over the more pressing spiritual or psychological dimension, when you find yourself alone in the bathroom and realize–the horror!–that you’ve forgotten your phone.

Naturally, the internet is not all bad. It’s one of the most powerful tools humankind has ever created. It allows for communications by blog writers who, ironically, are railing about the dangers of the internet. It offers unparalleled ease of communication, connecting servicemen and servicewomen to their loved ones, children to their grandparents, classrooms to others around the globe.

It’s the spiritual and psychological dis-ease that I’m interested in, though. Lurking underneath the glossy veneer of pixels and Facebook posts is a growing discontent. In those quiet moments we’re left with questions about our happiness and about our lives, including the ultimate question we must face: is this it?

Videos like these are provocative, sure, but I’m left wondering about their conclusions. In the end, the main “character” is off in the woods, backpack on his back, phone nowhere to be found, ready to discover what really matters in life.

I’m in strong support of going to the woods. I think nature has something to teach us that we miss in the everyday, including what we need to really live. I’m bordering on Thoreau territory now:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

I wonder: can the woods teach us all this?

I think of times I have spent in the woods, hiking with friends, leading wilderness trips for a season in Costa Rica. There are moments when we realize that all our getting and spending is merely mirage, that what matters are moments, preferably around a fire, with those we love. We realize, after a night half-outside an overcrowded tent in a torrential downpour, that we are stronger than we realized. The woods teach us this.

We learn to savor how the sunlight glints off a leaf or cuts through the forest; we learn the value of a meal even when it is cheap pasta; we learn that our fears and worries are primarily man-made, unessentially to both our survival and our significance.

We hike farther than we knew we could, and rig up tents out of plastic bags and shoelaces; we reclaim what humans have done for all but the last 200 years or so, living in greater communion with nature; we find we are more resourceful and more adaptable than we knew.

But.

I’ve been reading a book on story structure lately, and it lays out some essential characters that appear in stories, over and over again, for the past two plus millenia. The chapter on heroes–since almost every story has a hero, or at least an anti-hero–establishes ground rules for what heroes (or heroines) must do.

It does not matter if heroes are courageous or strong. It does not matter if they are handsome or particularly intelligent. They can, and often do, have drastic faults that bring their downfall. But a hero–and this is a good sign of who the hero is–must sacrifice. He or she must let go of his own concerns and fight for others.

Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State, writes that for people to experience meaning in their lives, or meaningful lives, they must have purpose, or be moving toward a goal; value, or a sense of good and bad; efficacy, or action toward their goal; and self worth, or at least some sense that a choice matters, and the right choice is important.

Sacrifice is a purposeful, efficacious action that declares both the values of the one sacrificing and the inherent worth of the action. Put baldly, sacrifice is the quickest vehicle we have for finding meaning. When we sacrifice for others, we are inherently doing a meaningful act.

Our culture misses this in its search for significance and, more simply, happiness. We finish with the distinctly tried idea of dropping our cell phones for an hour or a weekend to get with friends or go to the woods and see if we cannot find real life. But like Paul Zweig, the adventurer and poet, we are still left with ourselves, only now sand (in Zweig’s case in the Sahara) is blowing in our faces.

“The earth moves about,” Zweig recounts, as he attempts to alleviate his “inner dryness” in the Sahara, “I can have no confidence in it.” Nothing will stop his “vacant spin of inner existence.”

Wilderness is necessary for us: most journeys begin with a stepping away from society and culture in order to see it more clearly. We must do this. But meaning, and ultimate answers to life, do not come from the wilderness.

Meaning inheres in sacrifice.

The answer for our time and our search for meaning begins with what we can give. Sacrifice can take many forms: it can mean our vulnerability and honesty in a situation in a way that offers connection to others. It can mean refusal of our petty agendas and embracing larger movements. This is why, whether in war or in religion, people find meaning through their willingness to give themselves up–either literally in battle or figuratively with a Bible. In fact, for the warrior and the monk similar things are happening in the limbic system, which houses the emotions and the amygdalae (the latter is the lizard-esque part of our brains that help control emotions like fear and aggression).

The warrior and monk have found corresponding answers to the problem of meaning: sacrifice.

Our essential problem finds a similar answer. The woods will not provide the essential meaning for which we long. They will, of course, provide novelty–and perhaps go well beyond that–but we will still be left with our elemental selves. We must go to the woods from time to time. Our stories demand it.

But if we are to see ourselves anew, to find the meaning that we seek, we must discover an act that declares purpose, value, efficacy, self worth. This act is a sacrifice. The question we must ask is not what we must do today to carve meaning from rock, but what we must give up, let go of, expose, pursue with no thought to ourselves. For then, the demands and pixels of our phones and status updates will lose their brightness; the most important choice we make will not be what we buy but what we give; the question of “is this it?” loses its horror with the beginning of such acts.

May we be people who look for places to sacrifice, to give, to let go–and may we live lives rich with meaning.

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