Life doesn’t begin in the spring. We’re born into autumn, and if we’re lucky, we’ll one day make it through to eternal summer.
My fondest memories growing up involve the fallen leaves. I can still smell their bittersweet perfume, the scent they make when they’re wet with dew and trapped beneath two feet of a more recent raked batch of October confetti. I can’t help but smile at the mere thought of their fiery color and the fragrance that permeates for miles when they’re burned.
Maybe I’m biased, having grown up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. But spending my formative years in the heart of the upper Midwest rooted me firmly in the optimism of autumn. Fall brought with it the excitement of a new school year, trips to the cider mill and the pumpkin patch, and the slowly darkening afternoons that ultimately led my timid, introverted self to a hidden place of quiet reflection.
It’s easy to romanticize the harvest equinox. With vibrant inspiration, it stirs the restless poet inside us all. We’re drawn to the timelessness of a crisp, colorful landscape like a baby to its mother’s bosom. We hail from the fall, regardless of our actual birth dates. Life begins at the first turning of the leaves.
If only we could keep them that way forever.
Alas, the dew quickly turns to frost, and our once welcoming fields of golden sunshine fill with the icy sting of winter. By December, even the heartiest of roses give up their glory, and our beloved garden of Eden takes on a more somber, if not menacing appearance.
Here we find ourselves at the entrance of the brambles: a vast wasteland of cold, harsh realities. The unrelenting chill licks at our bare skin. It surrounds and taunts us during the longest part of our lives. But journey on we must. An arduous path of self-discovery awaits, winding us beneath shadowy, towering crags through a valley of twisted thorns.
If we’re lucky, we don’t arrive at this dreadful place until at least middle school. For some especially tortured souls it might very well be sooner than that. But mark my words, by the time the eighth grade rolls around, we’re stuck knee-deep in ice. Sadly, nobody bothers to tell us that it doesn’t all melt away until we’re practically retired.
We graduate from high school imagining we’ve passed through the worst that life can hurl at us. Then we’re forced to contend with either the ogres of the college bursar or the griffins who guard the gates of gainful employment. At this juncture we tend to encounter a host of imaginary friends, phantoms who come and go with the wind. Some may help us through the thicket while others only steer us farther from the path.
This is winter. Whether we signed up for it or not, we’re stuck in it. And the only way out…is through.
If I could give you one piece of advice for the trek, it would be this: Be mindful of the thorns.
There will always be those among us who refuse to venture far in. They fear the brambles, and with good reason. One wrong move, and all of a sudden they’re bleeding. So they play it safe and don’t move a muscle. Not an inch. They become a most miserable lot. And quite frankly, they don’t make it out of winter. The thorns may not get them, but the cold certainly does.
The only way out is through.
We dread the thorns, but we mustn’t. They’re there to guide us. I can’t say they won’t prick you. They will. But they don’t have to. You know the saying, “No pain, no gain”? It’s very misleading. It’s not the sting of the prickers that makes us stronger. It’s the knowledge and awareness we gain by learning how to avoid them in the future. We can swear by our blood, sweat, and tears. We can wear our scars proudly as badges of honor, but it is not our scars that win our battles. It is our newfound agility. In charting our course through the brambles, we discover the path of least resistance. All other paths only serve to slow us down.
The same holds true when we battle our dragons and demons. The surly beasts love to fight. They long to see our tempers flare. It brings our blood closer to the surface. What the monsters don’t expect is for us to dance. While our fists and swords are no match for the razor-like talons of these fearsome enemies, our grace and finesse can help us out-maneuver even the most loathsome of giants.
At the end of our wintry pilgrimage, we may be tempted to attribute our successes to the suffering we endured along the way. But to do so is a disservice to those who follow in our footsteps. It is not our suffering that brings us to salvation. Quite the opposite. Our wisdom to avoid the pitfalls we experienced in our past is what frees us from the brambles. Everything else is a frivolous distraction. No blood, sweat, or tears required.