“Humans don’t mind hardship. In fact, they thrive on it. What they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern life has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time to change that.” ~ Sebastian Junger
“I think I’m going to go out of town for a bit,” I vaguely told friends and family members at the beginning of October this past year.
A day or so later, I sent a mass text message informing everyone I was in the airport on the way to a retreat in the forest. I would have no access to my phone or computer for the duration of my stay and would be gone for at least a month, most likely two or more.
I left on a whim, and spent 60 days at a secluded location with a group of strangers from all walks of life.
We had all come to the same conclusion before arriving: there was something wrong, and life simply could not resume until we figured out what it was. Surrounded by acres of tall pine trees, green vegetation, and wildlife, we spent our time in reflection. Tasked with a series of writing assignments, we were instructed to write down the most traumatic events that have occurred in our lives. Our internal inquiry led us to write down in excruciating detail every shameful and difficult incident that we had locked deep in our memories. Once we had completed a writing assignment, we would read it out loud to one another in a group setting, and receive words of encouragement and support in return.
It is quite a curious situation to abruptly leave one’s life, responsibilities, and loved ones to spend time with strangers sitting on the floor of a cabin dissecting painful things from your past. Quite frequently, I would ask myself: what exactly am I doing?
Sixty days later, I turned my cell phone back on and headed to the airport to slip back into my life in Toronto. I returned home around the winter holidays and attended festivities trying to avoid questions about my seemingly mysterious adventure. It took some time to adjust back to society, and I assured my loved ones when they inquired that I had experienced something life-changing. The truth was, I hadn’t yet quite processed the experience I had been through: what exactly had I just done?
As one can imagine, without any access to technology, work, or the usual distractions of modern life, I had a lot of time to ponder in the forest.
I began to imagine us retreaters as members of a strange, yet beautiful tribe. As we spent each day getting to the bare basics of life, we all became highly valued members of this tribe-like collective. Tribes have ceremonies and rituals, and ours was no different. It was becoming clear to me that each one of us was there to undergo an internal rite of passage, seeking to transition from the passivity of childhood to the power inherent in responsible adulthood.
Every culture has rites of passage, where a young man or woman takes on a challenge in order to become accepted as a full-fledged member of the tribe. From the modern Western perspective, many tribal rites of passage ceremonies seem unnecessary and cruel. Perhaps our modern world has been too arrogant and hasty in disposing of these traditions.
In our unique tribal structure in the forest, the rite of passage entailed us to dig to the depths of our souls and locate any past pain or hurt we had experienced. In revealing these stories to one another, we exposed a level of vulnerability that is quite rare. Through unearthing the most painful shards of glass from our spirits and tending to each other’s wounds, we faced our past hardships head-on. One at a time, we held space for one another, processed the pain, and gave ourselves the space to heal.
There don’t seem to be many places to do this type of deep internal work in modern society, where we are all constantly so busy and the first question someone asks when they meet another is “what do you do for a living?”
Perhaps this is what compelled each of us put pause on our lives as we knew them and retreat inward. We said no to a society increasingly consumed with status and success. We turned off our devices where we obsessively curate our happy and perfect lives on social media. This seemed to me to be a bit revolutionary.
Each person in a tribe is necessary. We all did the work and revealed our greatest vulnerabilities to one another. We all supported each other any way that we knew how: a smile, a word of praise, a shoulder to cry on. We knew each other on a deep level, while not knowing each other’s last names or much about what they did for a living. Asking someone “what do you do?” seemed irrelevant to the point of absurdity, much like asking someone about their political beliefs. Whether a CEO or on welfare, we were all there together sitting in a circle holding space for one another to just be.
I had asked many times over the course of the 60-day adventure what I was doing. I now understand that I was there to learn and teach this eternal truth: You. Are. Necessary.
Once a member of the tribe internalized this message, we began to notice that we had the tools to face whatever challenges may arise in our lives back at home. We had simply forgotten how to access our own internal power supplies. Through expressing ourselves authentically and unearthing past shame, we finally could move forward with confidence, dignity, and strength.
As the year 2019 shaped up to be a year of massive internal transformation for me, 2020 seems to be a year of transformation on an Earth-wide scale. It doesn’t seem hyperbolic to state that we are living in a time of immense hardship and massive change.
Each of us feels the weight of this pandemic beginning to crack at our society’s superficially glossy exterior. Wounds are forming; whether through sickness, lack of safety, or financial loss. However, no matter our individual lineage, each of us comes from a line of ancestors who have survived unimaginable hardship. We have the strength and power to face this.
The world is our tribe now, and the connections we all share are undeniable from the microscopic level of the virus to the global economy we all take part in. Now that Earth herself has forced this pause, it is an opportunity for us to return to the basics of life—much like what I did with my new friends in the forest not too long ago. It may be an opening for us to take the time to reflect on how to create a society that provides nurture, while also including rites of passage ceremonies of some kind that prepare us as adults to face hardship. Our previous lives of comfort did not adequately prepare us as members of a global community to band together and protect ourselves and our loved ones when the world grew to a halt.
It is through this sense of belonging to a tribe and learning to navigate through challenging rites of passage that we build skills of resilience and reconnect with the power and strength we inherited from our ancestors. And while it may be tempting to become nostalgic of the world before this pandemic, I wonder how many of us were truly joyful, peaceful, and happy living in a life of comfort. The rising mental illness and addiction rates in affluent communities would suggest otherwise.
May we all go through our own process of initiation.
May we unearth the parts of ourselves that life cannot flow through.
May we find the power in ourselves to support others in facing hardship with strength and compassion.
May we all work together to create a world where we all feel necessary.