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NOV. 20, 2018

Practicing gratitude

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To paraphrase an anecdote told to students before their second wilderness trek: “One day a person is walking through the woods and stumbles upon a pack of hungry wolves. Oopsy… The person wisely runs away under pursuit of the lupine pack. Said person, whose focus is dominated by dread of the wolves behind them, doesn’t see an impending cliff edge and runs over said precipice; however, as luck would have it, the person is saved from plummeting to their demise by a crag-dwelling branch snagging their collar. Unfortunately, just below, a gang of crocodiles begins leaping up and snapping their wicked jaws mere inches beneath the poor person’s feet. To make matters worse, the person turns around to see a cruel woodchuck chewing away at the branch that suspends our individual above the ravenous reptiles. In the midst of a real bummer of a situation, our protagonist notices some radiant ruby-red strawberries hanging among the leaves of the savior branch. The person eats a strawberry and momentarily pushes their worries aside, wrapped up in the blissful berry bite.

Now it seems unlikely that anyone would ever fall into the above scenario (that being said, if you ever do find yourself in the above scenario, I would suggest postponing the strawberry search and instead maybe looking for either a handhold on the cliff or your Beaver-Be-Gone spray). Despite infrequency of literal wolves and cliff-dangling experiences, we all fall victim to the metaphoric wolves and cliffs of life and it is part of our salvation to find the metaphorical strawberries. It can be easy on trek to see–or even create—our own adversity: “My pack is heavy;” “The avocado is mushed…;” “My shoes are wet;” “The tomatoes are mushed…;” “This uphill is endless;”  “The cheese is sitting in a puddle of mushed avocado/tomato juice…;” “I waaaant CHOCOLATE.” Thus confronted by the wolves of circumstance–or our own devising–one must make an effort and look for gratitude: “Dang! My legs are getting that good workout!” “This waterfall wouldn’t be so big and beautiful if we hadn’t had all that rain.” “Wow, that view was so worth the effort.” “I’m grateful we have enough food to eat.” It’s easy to see what’s wrong and sometimes difficult to see what’s wonderful, but the practice of looking for the latter can affect our outlook and train our brains to naturally seek out the good around us.

However, sometimes circumstances are such that even the savviest spotter of appreciations can be hard-pressed to find something to be grateful for. On our recent student-led trek, we had several days of muddy trails and frigid rain followed by freezing nights. Heroically, my trek group, when unable to find metaphorical strawberries around them, was able to create strawberries of their own: we sang loudly; we choreographed a flash mob; we shared stories; we looked out for one another; and nightly we concluded our circumstantially dreary days with sincere appreciations, spreading warm spirits despite frozen socks and sodden sleeping bags. Unlike in the story, our gratitude was used not as a distraction but as armor to engage in goals and mission despite challenging circumstances. We work through challenges in our OA community, and gratitude for what the spirit of our school means is what makes addressing instead of ignoring said challenges so worthwhile.

“Give thanks!” Before every meal we all link up elbows or hands and pause for a mindful moment to simply appreciate…and then we say, “Give thanks!” Gratitude is one of seven principles practiced at The Outdoor Academy. I believe the word “practiced” is important here. At OA, students practice Math, English, Science, and History. Students practice how to negotiate rapids and rock walls. In practice we gain competency and skill. Gratitude is a skill and we must practice gratitude to develop competency in it. At OA, students practice gratitude. It’s built into our community Monday meetings and its expression is often one of the last things students do before going to bed at night. The giving of handmade crafts on OA’s Giving Day is what concludes a semester’s final night on campus. On that note, as the end of Semester 47 draws near, a sense of gratitude is especially ripe among Semester 47 faculty and students. Gratitude is becoming easier to see, easier to create, and easier to give. We give gratitude to ourselves, to the moment, and to one another. In regards to giving gratitude to one another, we must share our thoughts of appreciation–it’s not enough to think it–we get to Give thanks!

By Malcolm Campbell-Taylor, Resident Wilderness Educator