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Into The Wilderness

September 3, 2018  |  15 min read

by Nat Sanders

As is often true of Fridays, my family is in a rush (manic and hurried) to pack and leave the city for the forest. After an hour and a half of five o’clock interstate traffic and slow two-lane stints behind tractor trailers and farm trucks, we arrive worn and frayed at the entrance to the Ouachitas. For me, this moment, this right turn off the divided highway onto a narrow road lined thick with woods and canopied trees, is the moment my mind quiets and my spirit softens. It is the moment that separates me from the rest of the world long enough to hear the still, small voice of my own soul. 

John Muir said, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers but as fountains of life.” The 19th-century philosopher and naturalist believed heartily in the restorative ability of the great outdoors, and science (We’ll get to this part in a moment.) agrees. What about Jesus? 

From the forty days and nights in the desert after his baptism1 to kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane the night of his arrest2, Jesus’s story is full of the great outdoors. Among mountains, hills, lakes, and gardens, Jesus seeks comfort and solitude, rest, resolve, guidance, and affirmation. Like Muir, it is far from houses and city centers that Jesus feels restored, finds peace, and discovers his life’s purpose. As we (as Christians) discern how to incorporate the teachings of Christ in a modern world, I can’t help but wonder, should we too go out into the wilderness?

The scope of research dedicated to the positive impacts of nature on humans is astounding. Thousands of studies spanning the globe herald the physical and mental gains achieved by stepping out of our homes and offices into the forests, beaches, parks, and even the backyards that surround us. Research from Stanford reveals that 90-minute walks among trees (as opposed to buildings and traffic) lead to significantly decreased activity in an area of the brain associated with depression, and another study shows that walks in the woods are a useful supplement to existing treatments for major depressive disorder. After time in the forest, university students performed 20% higher on memory tests, in comparison to their counterparts who took walks in cities and suburbs. And after being immersed in natural landscapes, adults performed 50% better on creative problem-solving tasks than those who stayed in urban environments3.

What about easily measurable outcomes? Study after study find that stints outdoors significantly reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol (the stress hormone that in high levels contributes to fatigue, type two diabetes, impaired brain function, and infection). Over time, two hours a day in green space left ADHD diagnosed children and adults with an improved ability to focus that is equivalent to the effects of Ritalin. And studies in Japan have shown that just breathing the fresh air of the forest can boost your immune system. 

If you don’t like bugs and have allergies, try a winter walk in the woods. Research suggests that brisk air can increase metabolism, and there’s something peaceful and serene about the forest when the pollen is dormant and the bugs and snakes are all sleeping. If you’re disabled or short on time, studies tell us that disconnecting from distractions, sitting quietly, and simply admiring nature through a window can reduce inflammation, help us heal more quickly, minimize stress, and increase feelings of peace, happiness, and contentment4. Jesus, of course, had no reference for research, but we know he was drawn to the wilderness. 

Before choosing the twelve disciples5 Jesus spends all night on a mountainside in prayer. Upon learning about the murder of beloved John the Baptist6, Jesus seeks solitude on the waters of Lake Tiberias7 and then walks up the hills alone to pray until nightfall. Later, worn from healing the sick and feeding the 5000, Jesus again heads into the mountains, and when his disciples arrive weary after a long trip, Jesus takes them by boat to rest on the Sea of Galilee. 

In Mark, Jesus heads out in the quiet of pre-dawn to find “a deserted place,” and Luke tells us that Jesus often went to the hills alone to pray. It seems Christ inherently knew that there was peace, understanding, and purpose to be found in the quiet separation that nature provides.

In this modern world full of distractions, inundated with the ideas and opinions of others and bombarded by personalities, billboards, and displays that market society’s latest trends and definitives on how we should spend our time, money, and energy, how do we sift through the intense flow of information? When do we weigh and measure what we see and hear against our conscience or the convictions of our faith? Where do we ask, “Is my life a reflection of my true self and my purest beliefs or am I a reflection of the values and opinions of others?” Maybe we should step outside. Take a break from social media. Turn off the news. Perhaps the answers lie, as they often did for Jesus, in the quiet solitude of the mountains, lakes, and deserts that were here long before the woes of man. Perhaps it is there, in the wilderness, that we can hear our conscience, our potential, our creativity, and our purpose.

Muir said, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.” Whether a walk in the woods or quiet sit on a bench, be it from a fishing boat or mountain bike, through a rugged canyon or a chair on the beach, take time for the wilderness. Take time to separate yourself from life’s distractions. Take time to listen for the still, small voice of your own soul or, as some may say, the still, small voice of God.

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