Backpacking and the New Country

I recently went backpacking with a group of friends. Preparing for this trip created in me a rather bizarre kind of anxiety.

Some backdrop: I spent the last two summers as a mountain guide with Young Life’s Beyond Malibu, leading groups on intense, week-long mountaineering trips in remote British Columbia. In many ways, I exited my experience as a guide feeling much like a backpacking “pro” .

But in other ways, in preparation for the impending weekend, I felt like a total amateur. I had never been backpacking before I was trained as a guide with Beyond, and oddly enough, up until this recent trip with friends, I had managed not to do any backpacking since.

This left me with a vacuum of anxieties regarding all the little details that had “answers” in the Beyond context but were new territory for me in the context of doing a private trip. Things like: food prep, stove and fuel management, emergency preparedness, first aid readiness, knowledge of water sources and plans for purification, navigation, etc. It was the anxiety of knowing just enough about backpacking to know what I should know more about.

Much of this, granted, was just my own personality’s various neuroses hard at work. I am driven by a strong need for security and predictability. If I am going to do something new, I want to know every detail and to be absolutely ready for all possible contingencies.

But this is not how backpacking works. And it’s definitely not how our spiritual journeys work, either. One of the great tensions in my life–and of any Christian life–is living into the vision of God’s Kingdom which is both imminent and yet to come. We’re asked to step into a future in which we do not have guarantees of a specific outcome. Henri Nouwen, in his book, The Inner Voice of Love, uses the terms “old country” and “new country” to get at this tension. “You know the ways of the old country,” writes Nouwen. “…Even though you know that you have not found there what your heart most desires, you remain quite attached to it.”

It is difficult to step into the new country, but none of us escapes this tension. The Christian life has never been about getting a free pass on our anxieties. Rather, it’s the call to step boldly in the midst of them, trusting that God will provide. “You are being asked to trust that you will find what you need in the new country,” writes Nouwen.

The trip was seamless, and I was aptly over-prepared. But what else could I have done other than to move forward with the knowledge that I had as best I knew how? God, I believe, scarcely asks us for more.

For me, this trip was special because it provided a living metaphor for the spiritual life in real time. It wasn’t special because I escaped anxiety, but because I dove into it headlong and found that I was taken care of, and with abundance.