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There is a new book out called From Here To There by a guy named Michael Bond. He writes about human navigation, not just when it works but also when it fails.
.Naturally I’m interested; the more so because the book features the story of a search that the Maine Warden Service conducted a few years back. Some of you might remember the story? Maine game wardens and many volunteer searchers expended considerable time, treasure, and heartache looking for Gerry Largay, a sixty-six-year-old retired nurse, and Appalachian Trail thru-hiker who went off the trail and got lost. We looked for her and could not find her. Her body was ultimately stumbled across, accidentally and fortuitously, by a forest surveyor.
As you might imagine, Gerry Largay’s disappearance and the prolonged and fruitless search made for an appalling ordeal for Mrs. Largay’s family. It was also a huge effort and painful failure for the searchers. That failure still hurts, and it still feels personal.
The wardens who run the search teams learn a lot about their search subjects. They glean intimate details of these strangers’ lives in the hope of finding clues for the search. They interact with and form relationships — lasting ones — with the members of frantic families. As a result, they fall in love with their subjects, something that drives them to work harder and longer. Their hearts break when they fail.
For the author of the book, Gerry Largay’s example teaches an important lesson. Rational people who get lost in the woods do not think rationally. This is true even for experienced hikers and even for men and women trained in search and rescue. One of the people interviewed for the book is a guy who counts as a genuine wilderness expert. He reports that when he got lost in the woods, the urge to run, just run, in any direction, was so powerful, he had to fight himself to overcome it.
Researchers theorize that because getting lost in the wilderness was a real and constant threat for our ancestors, the fear-induced is actually a primal one, like our fears of snakes and heights, pre-programmed by millennia of human evolution. Mother Nature doesn’t trust us to solve these primal problems for ourselves. Our cerebral cortices get instantly stupid, and our mammalian and reptilian brains take over, defaulting to pre-loaded behaviors——run! scream! —- which may or may not turn out to be useful in the 21st century Maine woods.
All of this is described and analyzed in the book. What is not emphasized, however, is a further lesson the wardens and I learned from Gerry.
Under stress, we also default to our training.
This isn’t a huge surprise. It’s the whole point of training, in fact! Instinct tells us to run away from a threat; police officers and firefighters are trained to run toward it.
Gerry was an amateur hiker, but she had received training, including some instruction in what to do if she got lost. But a big part of Gerry’s training, emphasized again and again, was leave no trace.
If you go to the website AmericanHiking.org, you can get the gist of the training: Keep your campfire small… wear earth-toned clothing… don’t pick flowers or pile rocks…pick up your paper and plastic and bury your poops and banana peels…
And so, even as searchers were looking for signs of her, Gerry was carefully burying her organic wastes, tidying up her toilet paper, and “leaving no trace.”
Though she did start a fire, she put it out almost immediately. “Minimize campfire impact,” says American Hiking.org. “Do not damage live or fallen trees…”
One might imagine that any really rational, thinking person—-me, for instance!—- would be able to recognize that “leave no trace” is the wrong mental gear to be in when you’re lost and shift. Surely my mind would be capable of grasping that all sorts of traces need to be left … indeed, prominently and lavishly displayed— spare undies, credit cards, book pages, waste products, toothbrushes, toilet paper, dead cell phones, plastic baggies, burning car tires, you name it. So I can be found.
When the Largay search comes up in conversation, the wardens will still express despairing frustration with their beloved Gerry. They speak to her ghost: “Why? You had everything—matches, a camp stove, paperback books whose pages would burn, plenty of fuel … why didn’t you make the kind of big, smoky fire that would’ve brought us right to you?”
She didn’t, because that isn’t how our minds work under stress. We freak out … and we default to training.
How you practice is how you’ll play.
So let’s ask, again, about Jesus’ disciple, Peter, who denied Jesus three times.
There’s that simple answer to the question of why: He was afraid of attack, of pain, of death at the hands of his enemies. Right in front of him, he was witnessing just what Jesus meant, in John 15:18, when he said “if the world hates you keep in mind that it hated me first.” Being hated conjures primal fear: Freaked out human brains default to fight or flight or, yes, telling lies. Little kids do it, adults do it, the other disciples did it and we can all think of plenty of examples from the world around us can’t we?
But what about training? Peter was not untrained.
He had been with Jesus for three years. Jesus was Peter’s personal trainer, his life coach, his rabbi, one who knew that a crisis was coming—-the writing was on the wall (and in the Book if it comes to that).
So did Jesus, in effect, train Peter for the wrong crisis? The way Gerry Largay was trained, in a way that left her flailing dangerously when the real crisis came? Or maybe Jesus offered the right training…and Peter just failed to follow it?
Before you answer that question— and it’s kind of a significant one, given that, among other things, Christians are consciously in training for…something…let me ask you a more concrete question.
Why was he there?
I mean, there, at the High Priest’s house, first waiting outside and then, having winkled his way in, there in the courtyard warming himself by the fire? We’ve been told that the rest of the disciples skedaddled, with the exception of the Beloved Disciple but the B.D. was safely anonymous. We don’t know who he was, and neither did the folks in the high priest’s courtyard. But Peter wasn’t anonymous. We just heard the version of Jesus’ arrest in which one of the disciples aims a sword at a guy’s ear—-That was Peter! And the guy with the sore ear was Malchus, the servant of the high priest. Yes, that high priest, the one in whose hostile and crowded courtyard Peter is now hanging out.
We can know that Peter was one of Jesus’ more recognizable disciples because… he gets recognized. The servant girl asks “Hey! You’re one of that nutcase’s disciples, aren’t you?”
Peter’s freaked out brain would be screaming, at this point, RUN!
But Peter doesn’t run. He stays.
On all sides there are people who are a lot more threatening than the servant girl, and she persists in asking him, loud enough for everyone to hear: You’re with that guy! You’re with him!
And then again: Yeah! You’ve got the same accent…
Nope, says Peter. No, no …and only when he hears the rooster crow does he, at last, break down and weep.
Because he realizes that he was a coward and a liar?
Dang, these stories are so wonderful! They seem so simple…and are as complicated as a human… being.
Perhaps Peter weeps because he realizes, at that moment, that the dawn has come, that he has done this best and acted according to his training. Perhaps we can see that it was his training as Jesus’ disciple that gave him the courage to risk his life and even his immortal soul following his Lord into the house of the enemy, his training that prompted him try to rescue, or at least not abandon God, no matter what?
When the rooster crowed, Peter believed his training failed. He had failed. Jesus would be crucified before the day was out.
If the story ended there, we would —-like Peter—-have reason to despair. But of course, the story doesn’t end there. It keeps going, onto the resurrection and the light, and not just the resurrection of Jesus, but the resurrection of Peter as the rock of Jesus’ church. Renewed, he becomes a braver Peter and a wiser and more experienced one. It was the brave, wise Peter who, when training up a new crew of Christians, said “Be on the alert, because your adversary prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour!”
He’d felt the hot breath of that lion and the panicked urge to fight, to fly, to survive…
If you’re lost, stop moving … find a big piece of sky and stay under it…hug a tree … and for God’s sake, leave a trace!”