It’s funny how past experiences can suddenly come back to you in a new way. Have you ever noticed that? Things you’ve done, places you’ve been, emotions you’ve felt, they can resurface and impact the present. Sometimes it can be negative, with bad experiences from the past hamstringing you in the here and now; but other times it can be positive, with valuable lessons from the past giving you a new perspective on the present and fresh hope for the future. The latter is what happened to me recently.
I’ve been feeling stuck and hemmed in for a while now, plodding on stoically in a difficult situation with limited options and seemingly no prospect of things getting better. Have you ever felt like that? It’s been really getting me down. I’m waiting for a breakthrough that never seems to come. But then my wife reminded me of a time when I’d felt like this before, and, more importantly, of what happened next.
In the autumn of 2014 I was hiking through the bottom of the Grand Canyon, going from the North Rim to the South Rim. It was a fantastic experience (one that I blogged about at the time), with unbelievable scenery and a truly intrepid sense of adventure. But it was also tough. Physically it was very demanding. The first leg of the 3-day hike saw us cover 14 miles and descend 1,730 metres through Bright Angel Canyon and into the Inner Gorge. This is the oldest, deepest part of the Grand Canyon, a mysterious world which from the rim above – beyond which 99% of visitors don’t venture – looks like a dark slit and no more.
But once you’re down there the majestically eroded rims, temples and buttes recede and the wide-open vistas vanish. Suddenly you’re closed in, with sheer black cliffs of Vishnu schist and Zoroaster granite on either side. These rocks are 2.5 billion years old – it’s a primordial world that has taken the river eons to uncover. The sense of deep history and the sheer weight of time is mind-boggling, almost oppressive. What was more oppressive is the fact that it seemed to go on forever.
The Box section of the Bright Angel Canyon goes on for over 5 miles. It’s not so very far when walking along an airy flat, but deep down beneath the desert of Arizona in conditions resembling an oven, it’s tough. Really tough. Hiking through the Grand Canyon means carrying a lot of gear with you – sleeping bag, roll-mat, all your food and cooking equipment, and LOTS of water. My rucksack was heavy when I sprang lightly down the steps of the North Rim, but now, 5 hours later, it was a crushing weight. My legs throbbed and my shoulders were in agony. I felt dizzy with dehydration (despite continually drinking) and sickeningly hot. And it just seemed to go on forever. Mile after mile, bend after bend. The cliffs sharply undulated where the river had cut them, so it was like walking through the interlocking teeth of a zipper, zig-zagging back and forth. Every time I reached a corner I desperately hoped it was the last. Like a mountain with false summits, each corner betrayed my hopes and revealed only another crease of the Earth’s bowels. I was following the river, so I knew it reached the Colorado sooner or later, but it just never seemed to get there. Several times I stopped, too tired and discouraged to keep going. It was a battle to get back to my feet and trudge on.
Freeze-frame. Keep that scene in mind. What I felt then, is exactly what I feel now. Only the physical fatigue and discouragement from then is now psychological and emotional demoralisation. And you know what? That’s just as draining. It’s less obvious from the outside, but inwardly it saps you just as surely. Every time I reach a potential turning point in my current situation it turns out to be just another bend in the same, cramped trap of life. Factors beyond my control still rear up on either side of me, as surely and immovably as those dark canyon walls. The weight of my cheated hopes and growing list of fears is every bit as heavy as my rucksack in the gorge. I’m as low on hope now as I was fluids back then. Just like on that hike, I keep stopping and contemplate giving up. Why bother going on when nothing changes and my destination never gets any closer?
Can you relate? Do you feel hemmed in? Are you feeling like that now? Are you feeling trapped, cheated, stuck, blocked, or all of the above? Do you want to give up because you just can’t see things getting better? If so, I want you to keep reading, because I want to tell you what happened next…
Eventually the switchbacks came to an end. The gorge abruptly stopped and the walls fell away to either side.
In-between there opened out a wide open space, lush with plants and kissed with fresh air. It was sunlit, vibrantly green, a veritable paradise after being stuck in the dark, narrow tunnel of the gorge. I had reached the Bright Angel Campground. It was an oasis of beauty and a sanctuary of rest. Grateful beyond belief, I shook my dead-weight bag off and slumped onto the ground by our tent pitch. At last I could rest, with gurgling water beside me, desert birds trilling all around and spectacular rocky slopes rising up all around.
The point is, the change came. The breakthrough arrived. It took longer than I wanted, longer than seemed possible or reasonable, but it came. Things got better. The oasis will always follow the ordeal. I’m so grateful to Lucy for reminding me of that past experience to help me with the present experience. May there be people in your life to do the same for you, because we forget all too easily. There’s power in our memories, power to give us fresh heart, new hope and restored assurance.
My current situation will get better, and so will yours. I want you to take heart from this, as I have taken heart from it. It will come. You’ve just got to keep going. Follow the precious thread of God’s word and promises, even as I followed the little stream, no matter how dark or oppressive things get. Your hopes will be deferred, there will be more bends and twists than you feel like you can cope with, but you will get there. Your narrow gorge will become a wide open space. If you’re still in the gorge, the ordeal, then hang on to this verse for dear life:
“When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord; He brought me into a spacious place.”
When you’re hard pressed, don’t give up but also don’t stay silent. Cry out, not in social-media overshare or petulant pity-party, but to the Lord. He’s the only one that can help. Only He can bring you into a spacious place. Take hold of this promise, and take that next step. You might be hemmed in right now, but one day you’ll be brought out. Keep going!