Embrace the Wilderness
If a child below the age of six lives in your home, or you are acquainted with one, you have most likely heard about the show Paw Patrol. For the uninitiated, Paw Patrol is a show about a scrappy band of pups who, by way of a special space meteor (as the six year old in my house described it), are bestowed with abilities that allow them to speak, and to help save the day. Each up has their own special set of skills, including but not limited to: flight, superior intellect, firefighting abilities, and driving. The children that live in my home are fans of this show, and occasionally I catch an episode with them — mostly as an excuse to fit in a few extra snuggles.
Last night, cuddled up on the couch after their swim lesson, we watched an episode where all of the pups except Marshall, the firefighting pup, go on a hot air balloon adventure. Marshall stays back because he is scared of the heights to which the balloon will rise. The pups feel bad for him, because he is going to miss a day of adventure and fun. Alone on the lookout (Paw Patrol HQ), Marshall receives a call to action from a neighborhood citizen whose cats have escaped, and are trapped in all sorts precarious locations — including ones that are pretty high up. Alone on the job, Marshall is forced to put on the “packs” of the other pups throughout the episode and use their skills in order to save the cats. He has to dig, reach, climb — and fly. All of these scare him, and he’s not a huge fan of the cats either, who complain as he tries to save them.
As I watched this, I couldn’t help but think about another fellow with an “M” name who is called upon to save a herd — and they’re not too quiet about it either. In this weeks’ Parasha, Moses is called upon yet again to lead Bnei Israel out of Egypt and to the promised land. One problem though — Gd doesn’t want them to take the direct route, he wants them to go “דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר” — or “through the wilderness” Exodus:13:18. The idea is that by going through the wilderness, they might avoid the challenges of battle, and feel less afraid of the unknown journey ahead. The Israelites aren’t exactly thrilled about this — carrying all of their belongings, children, animals, and heaps of unleavened bread into a dry, arid, scary wilderness.
They complain. They are afraid. They are mistrusting. They think that Moses has brought them out of Egypt just to die. They even decide that living in slavery may be better for them. They ask — ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for is it not better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?” Exodus 14:12. They cry to Moses, and Moses cries to G-d — and G-d says to Marshall -er — Moses — you have the power to make this happen for them, make them follow you, save them, lead them. What comes next is iconic — the raising of the staff, the splitting of the sea, and the dramatic engulfing of all Egyptian pursuers into the depths of the sea.
Moses, G-d, and even the Israelites get plenty of air time in this week’s parasha, and its commentaries, but we so easily overlook perhaps one of the more influential characters of the story: The Wilderness.
The Wilderness is chosen by G-d as a space where everyone involved will be defined, will be tested, and will be saved. The Wilderness is chosen as the place where the Israelites will be pushed to edge of their fear, and tested in their trust. G-d knows that Pharaoh will underestimate them, that he will say “They are astray in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them.” Exodus 14:3 — The Wilderness is chosen to be their kiln — to either cook them, or make them stronger. Marshall of Paw Patrol is also encounters The Wilderness when he is called upon to use the skills of all of his fellows — to overcome his fears, break the system, and save the complaining cats (who in the end are also quite cuddly).
Life is full of moments where we stand on the edge of The Wilderness — a place that is both frightening and hopeful. The Wilderness can show up when we feel a sense of restlessness in a job or relationship, it can show up when we look at our child for the first time and we are flooded with both love and tremendous fear, or it can show up in the silence between the grunts of despair — the sounds of growth happening. For some of us, the Wilderness is a lush rain forrest , where we can barely see beyond the canope, and yet we are afraid to step in. Perhaps, it is an Arctic tundra with miles and miles of endless glacier that looks identical everywhere you look — unless you look closer. Perhaps, The Wilderness is the desert — dry, arid, a place where life cannot be- until it can. Most of the time, we choose the edges of this foreboding place, gazing intently at what appears to be destiny or defeat. We are afraid to take a step forward, even with guidance, for what we might find — out there.
In reality, many of us will encounter The Wilderness within ourselves before we encounter it in the world. We might get excited about a new idea and bump up against shame past failures, we might find our calling and feel afaid to step into it, and we will hear the echos in our self talk that tell us we are not worthy — that we are not strong/thin/good/smart/learned/safe enough. The Wilderness will call to us, and we will ignore its sirens, thinking that we are not — anything — enough. The sirens will persist — fire alarms going off in our psyches telling us that the batteries need changing. Persistent. Loud. Impossible to ignore.
Brené Brown, author, social psychologist, and someone whose teachings often hum in my ears during runs, writes a whole book about The Wilderness called Braving The Wilderness — in which she posits that braving The Wilderness is a quest for finding true belonging in oneself. She writes,
“Belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone is a wilderness — an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching.”
We have all been tested on what it means to belong fully to ourselves, to live a life where we live spiritually free of the constraints of others, the pull of our fear, and the seduction of despair. Marshall, Moses, Bnei Israel — you. We have been there — called to stand at the edge of The Wilderness, to witness the vastness ahead, and we have balked. We find ourselves on the edges, waiting of our so-called captors to catch us — until, that is — we do the bravest thing anyone of us could ever do — we trust. We ask the question with infinite answers:
What if I trust myself to use all of my co-pup’s skills and try and save the kittens myself? — thought Marshall.
What if I trust that G-d has a plan for me, and that I will know how to lead these people to freedom? — thought Moses.
What if we trust that The Wilderness will keep us safe? — thought Bnei Israel
When we trust, we peek behind the heavy veils of shame, guilt, doubt, and fear. When we trust, we signal to The Wilderness that we are ready to embrace the lessons within, to integrate, to re-adopt parts of ourselves that we have orphaned. We are ready to have that conversation, to leave that job, to declare love, to love this child, or simply — to acknowledge the change that grows. We are vulnerable, yes. We might even be naked and searching — we might be searching for a long, long time. Yet, when we embrace The Wilderness, possibilities open before us. As it turns out, we are able to use the skills of the others pups, we can lead others to freedom — and we can trust that each step we take will lead us to our own.
Embrace The Wilderness; in all of its scary bits, in all of its gory secrets, in all of its ugly cries, in all of its delicacies, in all of its creative energy, — let it become you, let it live in you. What is perhaps, most shocking, is that when we choose to embrace The Wilderness — to heed the call, to move through the fear so that it becomes awe — we find that we are not alone. We find the dreamers, the artists, the creators, the fighters, the healers, and the healing.
So go — fly, cross the Sea of Reeds, take that step to freedom — trust.