I started my eight-and-a-half-month walk across America on March 1, 2010.
It was a 3,030 mile journey of profound growth, connection, simplicity and authentic transformation found in moving the way we’re built to move—by foot, at around three miles per hour.
The journey was anchored in hospitality offered at the homes and dinner tables of 120-plus “strangers” from rural, suburban and urban communities. Families, partnerships, single mothers, college students, communes, public officials, professional musicians, police officers—all varied in political, religious, racial, sexual and economic stock.
My flailing certainty for what I felt was right and wrong when I started this journey slowly changed into a more flexible and floating scale of gray.
As I walked, my capacity for any form of certitude started to fall away, almost like a shedding of young skin. It suddenly felt heavy, forced and irrelevant to what was ahead. Even so, I found myself fighting to hold onto it—to hold onto the judgments I carried about the people I disagreed with.
Permission to let it all fall arrived when the very people I disagreed with invited me and my dog into the warmth and intimacy of their homes.
My walls and my ego crashed and burned, over and over.
At the end of absolutely every homestay, I walked away convinced that people, in their core, are good. That we share a common journey of wanting to love and be loved. That we want to feel safe, comfortable and connected. That we want to belong, somewhere.
It became all too clear—starting in my own being—that when human beings lash out, with an agenda formed in the mind and not the heart, we’re really just afraid.
We’re afraid of exposure and of vulnerability.
We’re afraid of the unknown.
We’re afraid to be wrong.
We’re afraid of abandonment.
We’re afraid of weakness—of truly trusting and letting go.
The fear that we carry is deeply real. When we hide, replace, numb, avoid and fight it, we seldom reach places of mercy for ourselves or the other.
Often when I walk now, I think about how we authentically connect to one another. I find myself quickly drowning in what feels like a sea of sorrow for the human experience. The sea resembles an ever-widening absence of experiential transformation and connection. The way we see and learn about one another is lost in our cars, buildings, homes, concrete and interiors that keep us boarded up from what is real.
It seems our outside world has become a physical manifestation of what we’ve slowly done to our inner life.
When I speak of transformation, I tend to lean on what Franciscan Priest and Wisdom Teacher Richard Rohr frames as, “a never failing movement towards the edge, the outside, the lower, the suffering and the simple.” I see this as a frame for a level of connection with others and ourselves.
There is a need for passionate justice work in this world.
The movements that speak for and stand with those on the edges and fringes are critical. They show us how to see what is real. How to see who is hurting. How to hear the voices of those who have been left out of important conversations and devastating decisions.
In the same breath, we will continue to struggle—and we may even make things worse—if we don’t also allow room for mercy and love. This isn’t soft, passive and apathetic love; this is the bold, hard, heavy and vulnerable love that lays down our ego and creates space for everyone.
I see it as a parallel stream. How do we create safe and respectful spaces for dialogue, relationship and exchanges with the people we disagree with or don’t understand? Are we sitting around more dinner tables to form authentic relationships and frames for difference?
When hate is constantly met with hate, we fail, and we face the kind of division that will only hurt the issues for which we work so hard to speak.
Back in 2010, as I walked and the sun began to rise each day, a deep inner conversation would take place. I don’t have many words for it; I think many cultures and religions have attempted to provide words, practices, sacred texts and ideas for the vastness that lives beyond our cerebral understanding.
The anxious cars going from one place to the next work hard to interrupt it. The crumbling concrete bridges, strip-mall jungles, and muddy ditches try to have their way, too. I stood at stoplights under thousands of haunting stares questioning, “Who is this tall, hairy, unkempt guy leaning on the signal pole?”
While the stares sometimes wore me down, this inner dialogue remained, and it remains today. It guides me into the eyes of the people inside their cars and shops. It always seems to transcend the stress, the judgment and the chaos.
These people all carry stories. They are spirit-held beings who share a journey with one another—and with me—as we all try to love ourselves and stay upright in a hard world.
I’ll never forget feeling for the first time that I had the space and grace to truly listen. To listen to something so much bigger than my own small understanding.
A couple years before my walk, in my mid-20s, my inward journey was nothing short of hell. When people say, “hell on Earth,” I get that. My dark self-hatred consumed my boiling inner life. It was locked and controlled—or so I thought. No one, absolutely no one would know that I was a struggling gay man living a lie and fighting to love his whole self.
Life broke me open, and I landed in the safety of a friend who could sit with me in my pain. There wasn’t any fixing, judging, changing, condemning, hating or blaming. It was love’s way of saying, “I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.” It saved me. It freed me.
It’s important to note that this friend carried a fumbling disagreement with my sexual orientation and my hope for a healthy same-sex relationship. That didn’t get in the way of loving me and sitting with me.
In the years that followed, I was surrounded by loved ones and friends who also deeply disagreed with me and my journey of accepting this part of my life. That didn’t matter to me anymore.
What truly mattered was that I was beginning to unconditionally love my whole self. I was alive. I walked confidently and honestly.
I was beginning to see others, beyond their status, agreements, beliefs or positions. I was beginning to see them as divine, beautiful, good people who have been hurt by the world.
On my long cross-country walk in 2010, I essentially had 242 days to continue exploring this scary but beautiful interior castle of mine. True pilgrimage. Oh, the dimensions. The fears and insecurities that lingered as I walked. The great vastness of the unknown.
The hundreds of people I met (and continue to meet) while walking under bridges, in alleyways, or while sipping tea on their rural front porch became conduits and reminders of this great learning.
These exchanges were often without words. They lived in a restful gaze, a simple smile, or a humble wave.
When walking through places—specifically walking—we have no choice but to see and accept the vulnerable and the unknown. Control and certainty become an illusion. It’s a big world out there. When we walk, we can’t just jump in the car and avoid what’s actually around us. We can’t just drive to a homogeneous gathering of people who affirm the same beliefs, ideals and values to which we’ve clung.
What’s really beyond the clouds? What’s really going on in the spring when bulbs and seeds start to unfold? What’s really happening behind the walls of the various traditions of prayer and communion? Who are those people, hand in hand, gathering in a circle around a pile of flowers? What story moves with the woman who struggles to get her baby and stroller to the store across a busy highway? How has the man leaning on the blue truck experienced love?
So, brothers and sisters, to get specific and bold, what truly frightens us?
Is it our political climate? Is it that side or the other? Or is it deeper? Might we be able to accept that the very fear we carry as fragile beings is the frightening invitation to trust and allow others into the burning house of our own pain and vulnerability?
I fail miserably time and time again. I get back up. I keep walking.
I believe that we are inherently good inside and that one of the easiest ways to see that is to walk. It is a direct and intrinsic portal to greater understanding and connection, greater wisdom and greater peace within.
Let’s take more walks in our communities so we can be opened and graced by spontaneous encounters.
Let’s take a solo walk to invite and trust the inward thoughts, emotions and challenges that arise.
Let’s take a walk with someone who is different from us (political, religious, race, sexual orientation, age, income level).
Red or Blue is destroying us. Religious traditions focused on certainty are destroying us. Allowing fear and conditional love to mandate our relationships is destroying us. Can we begin to slowly walk on the often scary and foggy inward path—as Oriah Mountain Dreamer says, “to be alone with ourselves and truly like the company we keep in the empty moments.”
Let’s take our particulars, our hang-ups, our mess and our greatness into a practice of loving someone unconditionally beyond their actions and positions. If we help hold this great mystery of pain and suffering (with ourselves and with others) with grace, forgiveness and compassion, we will, my dearest friends, change the world.
One step at a time.
Author: Jonathon Stalls
Apprentice Editor: Kristen Bagwill / Editor: Toby Israel
Image: Matthew Kalapuch/Unsplash