When I was in elementary school, there was a little boy who used to chase me after school. I didn’t know his name, I didn’t know anything about him except where he lived and that he was younger than me.
I knew where he lived was because I had to walk past there every day on my way home from school. I knew he was younger than me because he didn’t go to my school and was always playing in his yard when I went past. I have no idea why he chased me. One day he just started running at me and I, terrified and startled, ran.
After that, of course, I was an easy target. He knew I’d run, so he’d chase me. I hated this kid with every ounce of my soul. I was humiliated because he was younger than me. To kids, age is everything. If you’re so much as a week older than someone, you’re automatically a bit higher than them in the societal world of children. This boy was younger than me, yet he scared me. He scared me enough that I ran from him. Every day. I’d eventually lose him – he never chased me more than a couple of blocks – but I’d end up crying and winded and furious, at him and at myself.
“Why do you run?” one of my friends asked curiously. “What do you think he’s going to do if he catches you?”
I didn’t know.
I had no idea what I was afraid of, and that was the scariest part of all. If I’d have let him catch me, just to see what would happen, I’m sure I’d have stopped being afraid. I was eight. He couldn’t have been more than five. What could he have done? But I didn’t know, and that’s what was so frightening.
I remembered this story earlier this week when I was setting out on a spiritual pilgrimage I’d planned for one of my classes. I had mapped out my journey, a ten-mile trek along the Delaware River that ended at Ringing Rocks Park. Per my professor’s instructions, I was going alone, with my cell phone on silent and stashed deep in my bag. I had nothing but my own thoughts for company. (And my camera, of course.)
As I sat on a bench at the beginning of my trek, journaling and preparing myself mentally and spiritually, I suddenly felt like I used to when that boy would chase me. What was going to happen over the next ten miles? I literally had no idea. But spending seven hours alone, without even my headphones to keep me company, was more than daunting. I am okay with being alone, in fact I enjoy it. But this was a long stretch of just walking. And thinking. So often lately I’m chased by my thoughts, those snarling, nasty little beasts I do my best to outrun. Why do I run? What do I think they’re going to do if they catch me?
I don’t know.
So I set out on my pilgrimage. For ten miles I walked. At first I just ambled along, self-consciously lifting a hand in greeting to walkers, runners, and cyclists heading the other way. After awhile, I found myself soothed by the soft thump of my rucksack against my lower back and the scrunch of my shoes in the fallen leaves. I thought, I meditated, I ruminated, I prayed, I listened. All around me were birds and insects and squirrels and field mice and ducks. A gray egret beside the water let me get closer than I’d have expected him to. The water rushed in places and sat still and shimmery in others.
What I learned from my pilgrimage is vast and varied. I learned that I may be 46.5 years old and have barely gotten out of my chair in the past six weeks, but I’m still strong enough to hike ten miles. I learned that I feel closest to God when I’m outside. I’ve learned that after hours of walking in solitude, you do some emotional clearing and learn what is worth hanging onto, and what (and who) isn’t. I’ve learned that I’m pretty resourceful when I come up against unexpected roadblocks. I learned that it’s okay, even empowering, to look behind you at how far you’ve come. And I learned that sometimes when you stop running, what’s chasing you isn’t scary after all.