Where to go when the miseries of life seem to overshadow all that might be good has long been a question of mine.
I’ve tried praying—on my knees, standing up, sitting down; in confessionals and pews and bathtubs and backseats and trains, and, once, on a rooftop bar that overlooked lower Manhattan. I’ve tried master cleanses that guaranteed clarity of mind and purity of heart, but left me irritable and more morose than before. I’ve attempted martial arts, yoga, dance therapy and light therapy and art therapy and very real therapy. I’ve tried shopping, St. John’s wort, Xanax, chocolate, wine, and cheese—on occasion all at once, with only disastrous results—as well as fish oil tablets, tropical vacations, and mood diaries.
All of which have helped, each to their own degree. Some have had negligible outcomes; others, like psychotherapy, have had enduring effects. But I’ve found that there is no stronger balm to suffering than vigorous exercise outdoors.
As a child, I was notorious for running away. Fleeing wasn’t just an escape from difficult situations; it was a way to engage in a rigorous activity that brought existing back to its barest elements: Breath. Pulse. Movement. Muscle. While running, every concern besides placing one foot in front of the other seemed to disappear. Later, I found the same release when I learned how to swim. The problems on dry land disappeared the moment I was submerged underwater.
Swimming and running followed me into adulthood, but I took it a step beyond—literally and figuratively. Running through the streets of the cities that made up my childhood—Pavia, Florence, and Milan—was replaced by marathon hikes in the redwoods behind my back door and walks in outrageously beautiful but challenging landscapes. Laps in the public pools Italy had to offer were exchanged for dips in the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean. And while immersing myself in both activities, I didn’t ignore my troubles. I took them with me—on every step forward over the pine-strewn, rocky terrain; on every dive in and every brushstroke ahead. When I’d emerge—wet with sweat or seawater—I’d feel lighter, freer, cleaner. Capable.
Of course I am not alone in this. The redemptive power nature and exercise has on depression and anxiety is well-documented. For me, however, it reaches beyond the spark of endorphins, the fresh air, and the dose of Vitamin D: It’s the lucidity that arrives with compelling my body to its breaking point while being surrounded by a place with complexities far fiercer and more profound than the strife—real and perceived—in my own life. Walking beside a creek rushing with water deafens and eradicates the roar inside my head. Glimpsing a fawn in the forest brings new meaning to the concept of vulnerability, while standing on the precipice of a cliff enlarges my perspective of the world in a way that no academic book or erudite novel ever could. Nature arouses and defeats us, expands and shrinks us. It’s fickle and consistent; it’s as simplifying as it is mystifying. And it’s this clash of opposite, this simultaneous existence of two things and all things, that brings balance and hope back into my life. Nature is where noise as we know it ceases to exist, and another sound begins.
Few writers capture this as eloquently and completely as Cheryl Strayed does in Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. “But walking along a path I carved myself—one I hoped was the PCT—was the opposite of using heroin,” she writes. “The trigger I’d pulled in stepping into the snow made me more alive to my senses than ever. Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the other regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”
The next time grief seems to be the only staple in life? Be wild. Carve your own path. And when down, step up—and outside.