Our bodies are shaped and altered by our experiences.
There’s a scar on my left ring finger that runs from the top knuckle through the nail. Anytime the scar catches my attention, the memory of the injury that caused it flashes into my mind. Here I am carving a stick with my pocketknife at summer camp as a teenager. One second, everything’s fine. The next, there’s a deep gash down the middle of my finger and red beads of blood dripping onto the dirt below.
When the memory pops back into my brain, it’s vivid–like I’ve traveled back in time. The place I was sitting. The trees. The streaks of sun beaming between them. My finger throbbing and anxiety starting to rise. The hike from where I was to the medic on the other side of the camp. Sights and feelings and even smells from years ago return. Crazy how a little scar can do that.
Each of us carries the stress, body blows, and trauma from our past. Everything from short-lasting irritations like kitchen burns and poison ivy to the deep, long-term effects of abusive family members or struggling to pay the bills. They leave physical marks and psychological wounds.
Bags under the eyes. Cuts, scrapes, and scars. Cavities, hangovers, and extra pounds in the midsection from emotional eating and drinking. Shortness of breath. A weakened immune system. Trouble concentrating. Self-doubt. Depression. Feeling guarded or on edge. And many other impressions and effects.
We are natural, physical beings. We have these strange and fascinating flesh-and-blood bodies. We are not indestructible. Nor do we float through the world as untouchable, immaterial spirits. Sticks and stones do break you. And words–in fact–hurt, too. Sometimes a single word from a certain person in a certain situation feels like a punch in the gut.
Our experiences change us inside and out. Hopefully, there are plenty of good experiences that change us for the better. It is universally human, though, that through the course of our lives we will live through a world of hurt. Things we didn’t ask for or want. Some heal soon afterward and are mostly forgettable (like a careless knife gash at summer camp). Others linger and fester and undermine our ability to function. After some hurts, it’s hard to go on at all.
As flesh-and-blood creatures shaped by an endless variety of hurts, there’s a deep need for each of us to really know ourselves so that we can move forward. Where we’re at and how we got here.
How do you feel right now? Content? Deflated? Energetic? Weak? Flexible, light, and free? Or tight, heavy, and aching? Do you have cuts and bruises in the midst of healing? New wrinkles in the corners of your face? A racing heartbeat? Has someone’s cruelness thrown you off track?
When we more clearly see what all of the different hurts we’ve experienced have done to us, we’ll better understand what needs to heal so we can find wholeness. Oftentimes, we need people we love and trust to help us fully see and recover. No one can go it alone–especially when you’re wounded.
It’s hard to be human. We each go through many unique hurts. With over 7 billion people on the planet, that’s a lot of damage in need of healing. How can you and I encourage each other’s healing instead of increasing the damage?
I can vividly recall a Sunday school class when I was quite small about keeping promises. The heart of the lesson challenged all the kids in the room to think about how they’d respond if their parents said they would do something and then later came back and said they couldn’t. That happens? I thought to myself. My young, naive mind found it illogical that a parent would not be able to do something. Parents are parents: the only way they’d make a mistake is if they got hurt or tied up–incapacitated like Superman by kryptonite.
One of the most essential parts of growing up is understanding that your parents are not perfect. When you’re small, they can sure seem like superheroes. You’re wholly dependent on them for survival and growth. They’re doing a poor job of parenting if they don’t closely nurture and protect you. For those who parent well, imagining them with a cape is only a small step.
But sooner or later their flaws will show. They drink too much. They have a short fuse. They’re a workaholic. They make terrible decisions with money. It’s hard for them to love. The magical consciousness of early childhood can only cloud deeper realities for so long.
My own parents separated when I was just starting to settle into my teens. Their marital struggles and eventual divorce taught me a lot about how relationships can break down, and how the dark side of human nature can emerge even in your own home. I learned a lot about what not to do as a human being, and specifically what not to do as a significant other and spouse.
That’s not meant to be an indictment of them. Every parent is imperfect because human beings are imperfect. It’s just that our relationship to our parents is so uniquely based on trust and care that, as children, we often don’t figure that out about them until we’re more grown up. They teach, guide, and nurture us, and we take their view of the world and their role in it as complete, flawless, and true.
When we become adults ourselves, it’s entirely possible to remain in a relationship of trust and care with our parents. It’s a different kind of trust and closeness. They may want to continue to give you guidance and support, but you see more clearly now that what they have in mind won’t work for you, is misguided, or that they’re not a trustworthy authority on that. You have the autonomy to listen or not listen. Follow it or reject it.
And, interestingly, if you do have an honest and open relationship with your parents as an adult, you may be able to help them become better versions of themselves. Maybe they have trauma from their own childhood that they’ve never worked through. Maybe they’ve become stagnant in their career and they need a loving push to start a new chapter in life. Maybe they have an addiction that they’ve yet to overcome. Adult-to-adult, you may be able to keep growing in your humanity together: careers, travel, worldview, wholeness, and more.
We will all come to discover that our parents are not superheroes–they’re human beings. That realism is a good thing. The sooner we perceive their humanity–seeing their imperfections and struggles–the sooner we begin to build empathy for them. We are all at the whims of human nature. Parents are just a little further down the path. Learn from their journey, and if you’re lucky, you can journey with them well into your own adulthood.
As a kid, there’s probably no more interesting and vital place than the playground. There, budding youngsters experiment with all sorts of different versions of themselves. Queen of the castle. Thoughtful people-watcher. Superstar athlete. Goofball comedian. Alpha boy. And more.
By trying out various roles and interests as if they were costumes in a wardrobe, we begin to shape our identity—a richer and truer sense of who we are. This is a crucial part of growing from childhood into adulthood.
But for some reason, as soon as we enter the public square of adulting, trying things on is no longer praiseworthy identity experimentation. It is labeled pretentious. The young woman exploring the world of craft beer or wine is a snob. The student raving about up-and-coming indie bands is a hipster. The colorfully dressed urbanite is a narcissistic deviant. The Midwesterner who moves to the big city is an elitist dismissive of their roots.
Why do we encourage kids to try things out but condemn it in adulthood?
Condemn it in others, that is. We’re fine with it when we’re trying things out ourselves. If you’re eating through the city’s 10 best list, you just like new food in new restaurants. But as soon as someone else does it, they are a snobby foodie who thinks they’re too good for other people and other places to eat.
We seem to find it important to police other people. If there’s an apparent gulf between who someone is and who they’re trying to be, it’s some kind of social violation. Identity exploration has become so closely tied to elitism and otherness we can’t see it as something beneficial to growing as a person.
But pretense originally simply referred to pretending without all the other baggage. To pretend is not necessarily to be a narcissist, to think you’re better than everyone else, or otherwise. Snobbery, elitism, and self-inflation certainly do happen in the world. People unquestionably do things just to stand out from everyone else in a self-centered way. In a time of rampant materialism, conspicuous production and consumption are alive and well.
At its core, though, pretending—trying things on to see if they fit—is how we figure out what we like and who we are. We are all unique, sometimes weird, sometimes into things that other people can’t wrap their minds around. We should celebrate that in each other instead of castigating it.
Whether we’re the kid at play or the adult in the urban playground, we are all pretentious in some way. Acknowledge it and move forward. Let others try things on and figure out who they are—just as you do.
My wife, Amy, and I spent the weekend in Joshua Tree National Park. It was incredible. Unseasonably comfortable weather for the desert. Total silence. No electric lights for miles, so we were able to see the Milky Way amongst countless stars. Little, if any, cell signal. Coincidentally, one of the first things I came across upon our return home in the city was this video from Nature Valley.
Three generations of family recall their favorite activities of their childhood. The elder two generations are all about the outdoors. Fishing, forts, picking fruits, team sports, sledding, wild animals. The youngest generation, those who are kids right now, convey a preference for tablets, texting, binge-watching, and a lot of digital connectivity overall.
Now, of course, the main purpose of the video is to sell granola bars. Nature Valley is trying to get you to buy a product by amplify a sentimental feeling of the wild and restorative qualities of nature, as well as nostalgia for the simpler way of life you experience when you’re small. To be honest, Nature Valley granola bars are not one of the first snacks I’m looking to buy when I’m going outside. They disintegrate and piñata onto the ground once you open the package. You’re more likely to feed a bird or a crawling creature than you are yourself. But let’s set aside the whole commercial, marketing side of the video for a second. When marketing works well, it’s expressing some kind of truth, some kind of feeling that already exists in the air such that when they tell it in a crafted bit of storytelling you want to buy their product because it seems like a necessary solution.
What is the video trying to say about how people spend their time, especially as children? Does that correspond to how things are?
It’s undeniable that children are spending more time in front of screens than ever before. The average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly 8 hours a day with different media; older children and teens, more than 11 hours. A lot of that time is television, but other devices are catching up fast. For some children, the media use starts as early as just months old, with toddlers who do not yet even speak poking around on their parents’ phones and tablets.
So simply based on a few statistics and general observation of kids’ habits, it makes sense that today you are more likely to find a 13-year-old on the couch multitasking through apps with the TV on in the background than hiking a trail or throwing a ball. That’s not inherently bad. The amount of hours, however, is rather startling—particularly for older children. If you’re spending 11 hours of a day in front of a screen, there’s only 13 other hours available for sports, non-digital activities with friends, eating, sleeping, pooping, and activities of personal interest—including any outdoor ones. The sleeping part alone should take up 7 or 8 hours of those 13, so that really only leaves about 5 for all of the rest. Not a whole lot to work with.
It’s particularly concerning when any child is starting to lose touch with reality. The online world has an “intense pull” and is definitely “highly addictive.” As the one youngster observes happens while he’s gaming, “I forget that I’m in a house, that I have parents, that I have a sister, that I have a dog. I just think I’m in the video game.” The merits of the outdoors aside, when you start to lose track of the reality of even the physical space inside of the house, and your relationships with family who live in it with you, that’s a genuinely disturbing situation. I don’t think the grandmother’s tears are for show.
But before any adult gets too judgmental about the habits of a little dude like him, we’d better stop and take a look in the mirror ourselves. Any current adult’s childhood may have been filled with campfires and tee-ball in the city park, but we’re all just as active online now as any child is. Our social situation, especially the available technology, is prime to enable digital absorption whether you’re an actual kid or just a kid at heart.
Parents and Grandparents—and adults, in general—as the more seasoned and (hopefully) astute among us, “have an opportunity to guide our kids so that they can learn habits that help them make use of the digital world without being swallowed whole by it.” Kids learn by example, and often imitate the patterns and activities of those older than them. Adults should first take a look at their own device use.
How’s that going for you?
When you’re chastising children for binge-watching, are you leveling your critique at yourself too for watching a whole season of a show in just a couple days last week? Are you as quick to check your phone’s notifications as a child is with theirs? Do you interrupt the people you’re actually with in person to prioritize a call or message from someone far away? How often do you make time for fishing or fruit picking or pickup sports now?
Does Nature Valley’s technophobia hold up? Sort of. Today, childhood is irreversibly shaped by devices. They’re not going away. We have to figure out how to raise children to use them with healthy limits. And healthy limits are possible. But it’s not just children who need them. How long was it off-camera before the older two generations in the video reached for their phones to respond to a text from a friend or see what their sibling just tagged them in on Facebook? By the end of the 1950s, there were several million televisions in the United States, so those were entrenched in society well before the current generation of kids. We’re all culpable.
We all need to evaluate the hours we’re spending with screens, and how we might bring that back into balance. Nature is undoubtedly a helpful corrective. For myself, being in a National Park, in the midst of the tranquility and inability to connect through my phone even if I wanted, was deeply refreshing. I still snapped some pictures with my phone’s camera. And I had much tastier trail snacks than a Nature Valley granola bar. As the trip progressed though, I felt less of an urge to grab my phone out of my pocket and simply take in the scenery with the lenses I was born with. I felt my habituation for constant connectivity start to dissipate into the same stillness as the gentle breeze drifting through the California desert. I wanted to simply talk and laugh and tell stories and be present with Amy. No digital addiction could ever compete with the joy, complexity, and allure of being with her—especially while exploring the wilderness together. There are memories and recuperation in the outdoors, whether it’s a neighborhood park or preserved backcountry, that will long outlast a shared photo on social media or a Netflix retreat.
Perhaps the most important thing we should take away from reflecting on the Nature Valley video is to do whatever we can to retain an unspoiled, childlike sense of adventure with the world. At 9 or 90, there are more things out there and places to go than will ever sate the desire for amazement and entertainment. And they’re best shared together: with parents, siblings, friends, or anyone else. Let the digital be a bridge only if necessary. When you can’t get out of the house or the office. When others are across the city or on the other side of the world and you aren’t able to be there. When you need a reprieve from the insanity of your day and your only escape is a streaming video. Otherwise, grab a legit snack (and some water) and get outside somewhere. The online world only seems closer to a child’s fantasyland than the real world does if we forget nature is there for adventuring.