The bugs woke all of us up early this morning. The rain fell hard last night so the talk over breakfast revolved around pessimistic expectations about the trail’s condition. Tomato and David left first, followed by BJ Bear, and then me. I didn’t want to get out of my sleeping bag in the morning. I tried to sleep through the noise of people talking and packing. When I rolled over in my sleeping bag, Tomato asked me if I was one of those guys who always swam against the tide. He, of all the people I have met, especially commented on the size of my pack. Both he and David successfully thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail last year. They think the AT is much more difficult because of the steep grades, rocks, and roots. The group of Canadians was still breaking down camp when I left.
Quickly I found BJ Bear standing on the trail. With his white beard, thick glasses, and a trucker hat that said ‘I’ll bring the beer!’ he laughed when he saw me. He couldn’t figure out if he was hiking in the correct direction. Once I assured him of the proper direction, he led the way, once again not providing me the opportunity to pass. Since I still needed to warm up my body, I filed in line behind him and resumed our conversation from breakfast about the differences between St. Paul and Minneapolis. We talked about the ten years that he spent as a teacher in India and his eight years in Papua New Guinea. He has been a teacher most of his life, teaching German, music, and ESL to students of different languages. BJ seemed particularly interested in how good ideas deteriorate into bad ideas through abuse and misuse. He used his eldest son as an example.
The son, adopted from India, injured himself while driving a garbage truck in St. Paul. He began collecting compensation after reporting the injury. As the pain subsided, he continued to complain, remaining out of work. The pain eventually returned. The doctors finally located the source of the pain and the sun underwent gallbladder surgery. As long as the son reports pain after surgery, the doctor will not release him for work. If the doctor were to release him for work and the son reported more pain, then perhaps the doctor could be held accountable for prematurely releasing the man. The son has complained falsely of pain for years, therefore the son still collects compensation from the state.
In the meantime, the son lives with a divorcee mother of one child that collects both alimony checks and child welfare. Together, the son and his girlfriend that is, raise one daughter, two dogs, and a cat on alimony and welfare checks. They both smoke cigarettes, but neither drinks alcohol. BJ must often spot his son 10 dollars for gas money or for dog food. They live meagerly, but both consider it better than working. They milk the government welfare system. I’ve never heard so blatant an example of abuse. The system, originally developed in the early twentieth century to help people bridge the financial gap between jobs, has become the primary source of income for some Americans. Although I have not been exposed to many examples of this kind of abuse, I believe that it speaks to the core of modern America. Everyone expects a handout, either from the government, an institution, or other people. Too many people that I’ve met and many of whom I have heard about take advantage of the easy paths because they fear the possibility of experiencing failure, can’t stomach intermittent insecurity, or are simply lazy. I find that only good comes from hard work and deprivation. Character becomes stronger through difficult situations than those that are simple. I can’t understand the reasons for a person avoiding a challenge for fear of the outcome. What might happen if they fail? If death seemed imminent, then the risk should not be taken. However, failure and struggling can build character stronger than coasting in life. Each person, before they die, should embark on a challenge that they might not complete. Being cold and wet, hungry and without place to find food and shelter, being desperate, being frustrated and angry, and perhaps being regretful of the decision to take the journey, can build a strength of character that a consistently easy lifestyle cannot. Each person should attempt a mighty task that could be more easily failed than passed. By doing so, that person might discover a new aspect of character, perhaps reinforce a weaker aspect. Regardless of the outcome, I realize that discovery waits in the attempting of difficult tasks.
BJ didn’t have similar views. His views were slightly less critical of everyone else, which makes me question mine since I’ve seen little beyond myself for some many years. However, he did off strong opinions on the source of happiness, and I agree mostly with his views. BJ has lived in this world three times as long as I have. His perspectives and opinions are well informed I judge. When BJ retired, he entered a midlife crisis. Without a job, the task with which he identified himself and his life’s purpose, he lost his identity. If he were asked, ‘Who are you?’ He could no longer say, ‘I am a teacher.’ The difference between ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What are you?’ or ‘What do you do for a living?’ became negligible. He no longer associated himself with his job, therefore he lost his identity. Over many decades, he had become his work. He had not become his work like an obsessed man becomes his work, but in a general sense. Every morning he woke up and went to work as a teacher. In retirement, he woke up every morning without a daily mission.
BJ came onto the Appalachian Trail to explore his character and locate a new place in this world. He was not comfortable just being. He needed a purpose, a responsibility, a job. Four years ago, on Saddleback Mountain, BJ sat at the summit alone on a clear day. While reflecting on some poor decisions he had made in his past, he heard a voice whisper, ‘I am your shepherd.’ No one was to be seen. BJ knew he was alone on the mountain, but he knows that he heard a voice whisper, ‘I am your shepherd.’ He felt compelled to recite the psalm 23. After recitation, calmness overcame him. BJ knew, finally discovering at 65 years old, that a superior force guided him and guarded him. Every morning he recites psalm 23. BJ dedicates the rest of his life to helping others and completing the Appalachian Trail.
I hope that I might be worthy enough to receive a similar message, whether it is the Christian God that speaks to me or not. I only seek a sense of peace and comfort that will quell my concerns about my life and this world. I cannot decide in what way to dedicate my human resources. If a greater being directs me, then I will follow. If I discover a purpose, then I’ll find happiness.
Already in life I have some concerns about the differences between superficial happiness and true happiness. At such a young age, how am I to know which path to follow? Which path will lead to my happiness and which will lead to a hollow shell that only presents the image of happiness? Being so young, I do not know. I think that I am happy now, but can I trust that I am happy?
I suppose that the source of true happiness lies within me. If I were to dedicate my life to a task I despised but for which the rest of the world loved me, I don’t think that I’d be happy. I don’t think that external forces could wholly create happiness for me. Could, however, external forces prevent me from being happy? Could external forces destroy my happiness? If I dedicated my life to a task that I loved but for which the rest of the world despised and ridiculed me, could I still be happy? I think that I would collapse under the pressures of society and culture and alter my life’s mission.
Perception is a powerful tool these days. Media and culture present examples of successful and apparently happy people because they are successful in this particular aspect of life or another. However, I cannot trust what culture indicates as the model for happiness. My happiness, as with the personal happiness of all other individuals, is just that, personal. I must decide what will make me happy without the distractions of cultural pressures and insistences. In isolation is the best place for me to decide what will make me truly happy. If I am within reach of powerful cultural pressures, then perhaps they might influence me in manners I can’t sense. Perhaps their influence might cause me to inflate the importance of glamour, money, possessions, or friends. To perfectly decide what proportions of each ingredient I need in my life for happiness, I must remove myself from distractions detrimental to my abilities to reason and think. I will find happiness, but I suspect that it will be in an unusual place. Whether or not I find happiness on the Appalachian Trail or not, I don’t know. But, I believe that such an environment provides an excellent starting point to begin my search. If happiness is not revealed on this trip, then I will look in other places, both spiritual and geographic.
Before I find happiness though, at least before I secure it, I need to make sure that my dreams stay alive. I have dreams of adventure and greatness beyond the Appalachian Trail, but they will be difficult to accomplish and even attempt. I must stay focused to make sure that they are not destroyed. I should keep them secret so that no person can aim to dismantle them. People, even those closest to a person, can work to destroy dreams, whether intentionally or accidentally. Those that are older and wiser or claim one or the other can disrupt a flow towards the fulfillment of dreams. Only bits and pieces of my dreams should be revealed as time progresses, and then no person can knowingly work against them.
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