Lessons from the Mountaintop

Lessons from the Mountaintop

Photo by Takae Goto

Family Peace Association youth leadership programs usually include a segment held in the great outdoors, an adventure hike or the like. This year was no exception and the hikers were given a chance to climb out to what was ominously dubbed “Blood Mountain.” Yet, the experienced hikers of the group came to see this as a misnomer, like calling a mountain of a man “Tiny.”

It wasn’t a hard hike but for the novices of the group, it was like death. Breathing and putting one foot in front of the other became unimaginable. Why would anyone do this? And for fun?

But another participant found himself connecting the lessons of the hike to the abstract lessons they were learning in the other segments of the leadership program. Clearly, the hike was one moment in time but he and all those around him struggling to take another step could see that it was everything that came before that hike that determined how the hike itself would play out. It was the choices in our every day, the choice to walk instead of ride a car, the choice to eat a little better, the choice to occasionally take a run that played out at that moment on the edge of a steep cliff.

Later, he reflected on how clearly that hike was such an amazing metaphor for life. Those who were prepared – not just physically but also mentally – got through the challenge and were better for it. They even seemed to relish the challenges and, amazingly, were helping others around them along the way. Those who had simply jumped in, unprepared but also alarmingly confident got the worst of it: their spirits and bodies were crushed by the overwhelming reality of their current state. They weren’t ready in mind or body.

And so, he vowed to be ready the next time. Not just for the next climb but for the next challenge that life might throw his way. He would be ready to look at it as his lucky day, his time to test his mettle. His time to grow.

In the next year, he started to plan his days and weeks out a little differently. He made small changes and goals to start. First, he simply challenged himself to stop riding his car to school; he could walk when the weather was fine. Then, he started to jog. And jogging became running, not only when he had to get somewhere but because running became something he liked to do.

Soon he began to feel that this wasn’t enough and so he started to research what he should be eating. What he might do to improve his sleep, his run time, his breathing. He started to check his pulse and well as his habit of grabbing buttered popcorn as he headed for the couch at the end of a stressful day.

Gradually, with his mind always on the adventure hike, he started to seek out harder physical challenges. Was there a mountain nearby where he might test himself? Would going with a buddy help him to focus on helping others rather than his own discomfort?

His friends and family were amazed at his transformation, even while it literally happened before their eyes. His sleep improved, his grades went from a smattering of Cs and some “half-moons” to the top of his class. He started to get involved in extracurricular activities that he had never professed to have any interest in.

It all started in the startlingly realization on his first adventure hike. He saw himself and saw that he had something he wanted to achieve. And he saw that it would be achieved not in that moment but in the process or quest to achieve that one, big audacious goal. In fact, it was that the victory was in the transformation of his life that all started from one choice at a time.

Have you ever had such an experience?

A Story of Thanksgiving in Nature

A Story of Thanksgiving in Nature

I bet that if people spent a little time each day, just a minute staring at the stars at night or looking out across forests, mountains, or sparkling water, they would live a lot differently.

I was trudging up a rocky trail, a worn path up a rather steep little mountain, my breath outlined in the crisp autumn air as I thought, “Why did I decide to spend my day off hiking?” I’d gone on the trail before and knew the workout I was up for. Not to mention the clouds looked a little dark and there was a layer of frost on the leaves in the yard when I got up in the morning.

Like many of us, I had been too caught up in work, family, life to slow down enough for some quiet time in nature. But after growing up in a nature-rich state full of pristine hiking spots, I consistently get an urge to take to the outdoors even after moving to a bigger city for a new job. So, today was another day I knew I would have to put on my boots, layer up, and get my dose of sweat and fresh air.

Usually, on the way up a mountain I don’t think about much. I think about the way the trail curves here and there and how strong gravity is, always aware of the temperature. It isn’t until I reach the top, sitting on the ledge of giant rocks overlooking tree lines and peaks with the warm sun on my face, that a whole flood of emotions and thoughts about life overtake me. The two hours of quiet hiking distilled into ten minutes of gratitude at the summit that I would not have experienced if I had just stayed home in front of a screen or dozing.

Those ten minutes at the top, feeling sweaty and accomplished, a thought came to me. What would I say at the Thanksgiving table this year? What was I grateful for?

There were so many things I could think of, but the quiet up there gave me a rare gift of clarity. I could allow myself to be vulnerable, recalling the happiest and the most painful experiences of my year and how I changed and grew. But I knew I couldn’t have grown without the help of some people who I didn’t actually take the time to truly express my gratitude towards. And maybe I didn’t have to tell all of them. Maybe it was enough to acknowledge within myself. But I thought I could thank at least one person and what better time than Thanksgiving?

Admittingly, on the way down from the mountain my thoughts were again preoccupied by making sure I took the right turns and the protest of my knees on the steep decline. But when I got back, a thank you note was carefully written, placed in an addressed envelope and mailed off to the recipient.

Spend a little quiet time in nature. Whether it is two hours or two minutes, the realizations you receive may not change your life overnight, but no one summits a mountain in one step.

Who is helping you climb the summits in your life? Don’t forget to tell them thank you.

Happy Thanksgiving.

One Step at a Time – Oh, and Focus on Your Breathing

One Step at a Time – Oh, and Focus on Your Breathing

The summit looked so far as it played peek-a-boo through the morning mist.

It always did at the start of the journey.

But Ken was experienced enough to know that if you kept looking up at the summit, it was easy to get discouraged.

The point was to start, one step at a time.

So, he took a deep breath of the crisp morning air. It filled his lungs. He could almost feel the clean oxygen moving into his muscles, invigorating them as he took his first steps of the day. He breathed out, making room to take in whatever lay before him.

He wasn’t starting blind. He knew the day would be hard. That peak was high, and he’d scaled enough mountains to know that it would be no easy ride. But his mind was set, he and his team had decided that they would reach the summit today.

With that resolve he set out towards the goal, step by step.

Some steps were harder than others.

Starting out on level ground, the steps came easy. Placing one foot in front of the other, he had enough extra energy to look around, appreciate the grass, the trees, the occasional small critter that scurried by, even exchange a few words with his teammates.

As the incline grew, he could feel the strain on his muscles.

At times, even placing one foot in front of the other pushed his limits. He enlisted extra support from his arms as they pushed against his walking sticks to pull his weight up against the pull of gravity. Sweat drenched the collar of his jacket and the rim of his cap. No one was talking anymore.

When you are going up, it only gets harder as you get closer to your goal.

As his body cried for relief, and even his mind tried to break free from the commitment of reaching the top, he found focus in a surprising place: his breathing.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

Even when everything wanted to give in and give up, he could focus on keeping up this small, consistent act.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

Just as his first deep breath in the morning, he could feel his breathing keep the rest of his struggling system oxygenated.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

As he kept control of his breathing, the rest of his body fell into rhythm with his breath, almost like cruise control.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

His mind calmed down and also fell into the rhythm of taking in, and giving out. He began again to see the world around him, the fresh air, the small vegetation, the shale on the side of the mountain. Only now he saw them clearer, he saw the relationships that tied everything together, including his presence.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

He heart began to swell with gratitude and wonderment of God’s design of the world as he witnessed how everything was created to thrive in relationship to each other, giving and receiving, just like his breath. This gratitude energized him, opened new sources of energy as he picked up the pace on the final stretch.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

He put his final steps down as they reached the top of the mountain and the valley opened below.

Ironically, the view revealed all the other peaks that they could challenge if they decided to.

He took another deep breath, taking in the beauty of the scene. As he released his breath, smile broke his face. They had done it, one step at a time, sustained by his breathing.

Back from the mountain, his experience remains as a powerful reminder that he can take on any peak. But when things get tough, or look intimidating from ground level, he knows to start with the first steps forward – and focus on his breathing.

Facing Your True Self in Nature

Facing Your True Self in Nature

College students and young adults from across the United States traveled to the wilderness of Montana to participate in an outdoor workshop in September. This is a story from a participant, sharing what he learned from his experience in nature.

With thirty pounds of stuffed packs laying around us, we gathered near the trailhead to discuss the logistics of our upcoming journey.

“Who would like to volunteer to lead the trail today?” Our leader spoke up. A moment of silence followed.

“I can.”

I felt the pressure of the demanding position, but I wanted to challenge myself to break out of my shyness.

Our adventure program included five days and four nights of hiking. At the beginning of each day we took on responsibilities for specific roles and I had just volunteered for my first position: trail lead. Trail lead had three main tasks: reading a map to keep the group on the right path, controlling the pace and organizing the rest periods. Such tasks were important to get everyone to the destination on time to set up a camp and have a meal before sundown.

Backpacking through burnt trees.

Our journey upwards was peaceful without very many encounters with other hikers. We climbed up and down the trails surrounded by beautiful evergreens and refreshing creeks. Although we encountered barren hills, spiked with burnt trees, and even as swirls of ashes troubled our eyes and nose, such struggles were rewarded with the wondrous scenery of the lake shining under the sun.

Even with all the peace and beauty of nature that surrounded us, I often struggled from the discomfort that came with the responsibilities of my role. Stemming from my shyness, I continuously faced a weakness that I knew all too well — my fear of making mistakes.

I was unfamiliar with the tasks of my assigned role, including how to read a map. As a result, I found myself doing the bare minimum. Although I was able to avoid making big mistakes, I soon became consumed by a sense of defeat that followed my escape from the challenge.

Such an experience was difficult for me personally. However, looking back, I now realize that such a challenge was precisely the gift that nature offered, presenting me with the opportunity to identify and observe my weaknesses.

In my daily life, surrounded by flashy technology, busy schedules, and social interactions, it is easy for me to ignore the flaws in my character that hold me back. Making excuses was easy in such an environment filled with distractions.

“I can forget about it for now.”

“I have more important things to do.”

This constant delay in solving my problems led to negative emotions that I avoided by watching TV-shows and playing video games.

But, such tricks don’t work in nature.

When I was having a difficult time confronting my weaknesses, I couldn’t rely on a YouTube video and my favorite snack to distract myself. Instead, I had no choice but to face myself. The purity and simplicity of nature were such that I had to face my flaws and that helped me to set a sincere determination to overcome them. I came away on that day with a deeper understanding of myself.

College students hiking on the Continental Divide trail.

Nature can be a perfect place to evaluate ourselves clearly because it pushes us to reveal our weaknesses and limitations.

The physical hardship from relentless hours of hiking in hunger, cold wind and burning sunlight will bring discomfort; this reveals to us our true limitations in our interactions with ourselves and others.

And with the lack of distractions and excuses, nature can provide us with the great opportunity to have a more effective attitude in solving our problems, motivating us to change.

When I was complacent in my daily routine and stuck in my negative emotions, a week-long hike in the wilderness became an opportunity for self-evaluation to identify problems and offer solutions to the problems that kept me stuck. The time in nature filled with challenges and a peaceful environment became a great school for learning and spiritual growth.

Founding Value of Service in America Inspires Global Citizenship

Founding Value of Service in America Inspires Global Citizenship

Sometimes called the melting pot of all nations, America’s founding principles and shared values have enabled it to embrace diverse cultures and religions while maintaining some social cohesion. Its Declaration of Independence states that God the Creator grants all people inalienable rights. At the same time, it calls for each person to live their lives for a greater purpose because every person’s value and equal rights are given to us from a source greater than ourselves.

These founding values have formed the spirit of service based on human rights and the opportunity to build a culture and a society that transcends the  barriers of race, religion, and other divisions to find common ground in fundamental rights, the ideal of freedom, and to serve those who could not protect those freedoms for themselves.

The founding fathers of America recognized just how important these fundamental freedoms were. They willingly put their very lives on the line to protect the values that would be later articulated as the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The original phrase was “life, liberty, and property.” However, it was rewritten to the more appropriate “pursuit of happiness,” which conveys the spiritual pursuit of all humanity.

The pursuit of happiness rests not on the aspiration of one individual but depends on relationships founded on virtues. Happiness cannot be achieved alone; it is found only in dynamic relationships. It is a collective effort between people and within the family. Some of the most charitable efforts, from alleviating poverty to responding to natural disasters, are motivated by this spiritual pursuit of happiness.

It is this same spirit of service that motivates many military personals in the United States to champion human rights for all people, not just their own nation. This spirit of selfless service is what inspires service women and men to get up every day, train, and work hard to not only protect the fundamental freedom of all people but to protect the ability to create a culture of values, raising healthy families with the potential to pursue happiness. In many ways, it is the legacy of the American story – “the pursuit of happiness” for all people.

Jeremy Graham sharing his insights on service based on America’s Declaration of Independence.

Jeremy is a serviceman who shared his testimony at a recent Family Peace Association family workshop. As a husband, father, graduate student, and Captain in the United States Army, the values he strives to build up in his own family are the same values that gives him the motivation and passion to serve his country, willing to even lay down his life to protect fundamental human rights and the founding ideals that made America a melting pot of people and cultures from every other nation around the world.

“I absolutely love the United States of America. I love the concept our founders had of establishing a government built on values and I am humbled and hopeful in our responsibility to make our founders’ vision work.”

Jeremy emphasized the importance of values in creating a culture when he reflected on his time as a cadet where “duty, honor, country” were the guiding values and the direction to cadets was to “not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” These values created a culture where people aspired to live up to higher ideals. With the creation of the Declaration of Independence, the founders outlined fundamental principles and values to inspire a standard of individual and collective responsibility that is essential to our success as a nation. A values-based culture creates the capacity in people to make higher ideals a reality in everyday life.

There are ideals and values, like the sense of service to humanity, that is bigger than any one nation or organization. They are universal. Global citizenship is something all of us can practice with every generation as we continue the legacy of service through our families and communities around the world.

Jeremy spoke at a recent workshop hosted by Family Peace Association USA, organized by a high school student for his Boy Scout Eagle Project. The workshop explored universal principles of the American founding and how they might apply to global citizenship.

Never Give Up, We Grow Through Overcoming Challenges

Never Give Up, We Grow Through Overcoming Challenges

Nothing worthwhile in life comes easy. It takes hard work, dedication, and a willingness to make and learn from mistakes. But most important is to keep going, even when you want to give up.

If you never give up, eventually you will reach your goal. And with each goal, comes a confidence that any challenge is surmountable, any goal is attainable, and that you grow when you challenge your limitations.

This was a hard-earned lesson for a high school junior who has striven not only to perform well academically, but also in leadership roles in his school and community. Recently he led a three-day family workshop on the founding principles of the United States and how it can inform global citizenship. The process was challenging, but with the support of his mother and community, it was a great success.

During his first year of High School everything was new, exciting, and call it beginners luck, but everything seemed easier.

Three years later, commitments have become responsibilities that require leadership and character. He is no longer the freshman following the upperclassmen, he was the upperclassmen being asked to lead by example and make hard decisions. The basic workload of homework drills, lab reports and exams has gotten heavier and heavier. Community involvement and extracurricular sports require more time and work. And all the while, his personal expectation to deliver the best had become non-negotiable.

Opening remarks at the family workshop.

It was during a moment of overload that he sought out mom’s support. Overwhelmed by all his obligations, particularly the amount of work it was taking to qualify for his Eagle Scout Badge, at first he hoped to get her approval to scale back on his workload. She did not give him that option. “You’ve come this far, you can’t quit now,” she said softly. He pushed back. He was not required to fulfill his commitment to the community project, it was voluntary. Life was getting too stressful.

“If you quit now, you are teaching yourself that it is okay to walk away from challenge.” she gently reminded him. “It’s a hard lesson to unlearn.” He kept fighting back. He barely had time to sleep or eat, let alone keep up his grades and do well in sports. Couldn’t he just let this one slide?

“You know the most important things in life are hard to attain. But it’s through the challenge you learn and grow,” she smiled.

Finally, her kind encouragement and firm affirmation of his ability to see his final project through successfully won out. He decided to take it through to the end.

And it was hard. There were more sleepless nights writing up opening remarks, there were organizing meetings recruitment calls, all while trying to keep everything else in his life in balance. But mom was also there. She brought him cookies and a cup of coco in the late evenings when he worked through the schedule. She was there to listen to his draft remarks and offer feedback. She was there to make sure he ate in the morning, packed a lunch and had a good meal in the evening. And she was there to be his advocate when he needed a voice and representation to make things work in the adult world. She worked just as hard to make sure he succeeded.

Participants pick research topics related to America’s founding ideals.

And he did. The program was an amazing success, with great reflections, and a request for more like it. When he looked at his own his experience, he had also learned a lot: about organizing and working with people, about creating a schedule, about the importance of having families learn about principles and values together, and of course that he was capable of so much more than what he thought, it just took belief and a refusal to give up.

His mother helped him see that he could do it and her gentle support that gave him the power to believe in his capacity. She saw his potential and refused to back down. Along the way, she backed him up every step of the way.

There will be challenges in every area of life, that is a guarantee. The more valuable the goal, the harder and longer the journey to attain it. But by challenging our limitations, we discover what we are capable of. It helps to have parents who can remind us of our potential, and push us when we want to give up, urging us strongly or gently to never give up and tell us how much they believe in us.

Someday they can do the same for their children, ensuring that every generation surpasses the last.