Recently, Rachel and I took a train from London to the East coast of England so that we could walk the White Cliffs of Dover. It was probably my most favorite experience during our entire time backpacking Europe, only because everything that day was so beautiful – the weather (partly cloudy and breezy, with great lighting for pictures), the cliff’s edge, the wildflowers, the rolling hills, the castle in the distance – it was almost too much to take in. We had a wonderful day together, walking, talking, posing for photos, stopping at a lighthouse where we had tea, biscuits, and jam in an old English tea room, and exploring a place we’d never been before and may never visit again. However, I could have really ruined the entire day by doing something I am prone to do, and something I’ve done before.
We had put in a solid seven miles or so hiking around. And we were both pretty exhausted. And we had experienced the best of the Cliffs, and now had to hike back the way we came. My feet hurt, and I am sure Rachel’s did too. And we were sweating because the wind had died down and the sun was now beating down on us. We weren’t saying much to each other, simply because we were dead tired. And honestly, we both just wanted to get back to the main station so we could board our train, sit down, and rest during the two-hour ride back to London. We were just putting one foot in front of the other, and making progress.
At one point, I tried to hitchhike along a side road in the hopes that someone would take us by car back to the train station. But no one stopped for us. So in my mind I was annoyed, but not at Rachel – just at the situation. I knew we just had to suck it up and take the long way back. And so that is what we did. However, on my mind was the train schedule, and I really wanted us to get there as fast as possible so that we could take the earliest train out. It left at a certain time every two hours, and if we missed the one I wanted, we’d have to sit around for such a long time before being able to get another one. And again, I just wanted to get home. And so I walked fast along the trail. In front of Rachel. And it happened that I was walking much faster than her, and so that put a good distance between her. When I realized this, I stopped, and waited for her. But then when she caught up, I would start walking again – faster than her – and again realized a few minutes later that I was way in front of her. And so I stopped again, and patiently waited for her to catch up. And then I was off again. And the scenario repeated itself.
I don’t know what I was thinking. Clearly, I wasn’t. I was just on auto-pilot, determined to get to where I was going, determined to set the pace, and hell-bent on getting to the train station as soon as it was humanly possible to do so. In retrospect, I had done something similar before, and it had been really stupid of me. Six years ago, my ex-girlfriend and I flew out to Colorado for “Adventure Week” where – among other things – we were going to camp out and then hike Mt. Bierstadt with friends. It was a beast of a climb, made even harder by the fact that we didn’t start at the proper trailhead and spent an hour and a half trying to find it. Eventually, though, we made good progress up the mountain, and stayed together as a group. And we were having a great time talking, and sharing stories, and bonding through it all.
At some point, though, I thought to myself that I wasn’t really getting a workout at the pace our group was traveling – and really wanted to push my body so that it would get stronger and more physically fit as a result of this hike. I mean, I didn’t come out to Colorado to take it easy on this trip. And that meant that I just couldn’t (read: didn’t want to) go as slow as my ex (even though she was absolutely doing her best and going her fastest), because then the hike wouldn’t do my body any good. (I seriously thought this). And so I made the decision to just leave her and the rest of the group, pick up my speed, and bound up the trail at my own pace (while still keeping them in my sight-lines).
I also remember thinking to myself that maybe I was doing her a favor, because I didn’t want my presence right next to her to put any unnecessary pressure on her to go faster, and make the hike even more difficult (and miserable) than it already was. But my motives were not perfectly pure – my priority was getting the most out of the hike for myself, and not on patiently waiting for her and going alongside her, at her speed.
I was such a jerk.
Later, she told me that she was really hurt by me leaving her back there while I went far up ahead. She also said that it made her feel that I was upset at her because she was slowing us down (I wasn’t, but we all know how awful you feel when you think you are making someone else’s life more difficult, and that you’re being a burden to them). While I really believed I was doing the right thing for me at the time when I walked ahead of her, I realized during our conversation that it was stupid, and selfish, and not loving at all. I asked her for her forgiveness, and she was very gracious. And I was so mad at myself for being like that.
You’d think I would have learned from such an experience. Fast forward to six years later. I was pretty much doing the same thing. To my wife. What on earth was wrong with me?!?!?
Eventually, Rachel and I got to the train station. And God had worked it out so that we were there right on time to catch one that was leaving soon. He had always been doing that, the entire trip. We never got stuck anywhere, we never had to wait too long or be inconvenienced too badly. I should have trusted Him. I should have not been so focused on what I needed to do to get us home. And I should have learned from my previous mistake.
Rachel and I talked about it later. She also said she was hurt by my actions, and that she thought I was upset or even mad at her (which was not true in the slightest). Rachel also said that it prompted all of these unhelpful thoughts in her mind, like “He’s probably really annoyed with me because I’m so slow.” That’s not true at all, but you know the malignant messages that multiply in your mind and beat your spirit down when you feel like you don’t measure up. We all can relate to that.
And it’s another lesson in communication. I was giving off certain signals, and she was misinterpreting them, and my behaviors just seemed to confirm what she was then thinking. We could have just stopped for a moment, gathered ourselves and our emotions, and talked it out. But we didn’t, and perhaps didn’t know how in that moment.
We could have just stopped for a moment, gathered ourselves and our emotions, and talked it out. But we didn’t, and perhaps didn’t know how in that moment.
I apologized, because I was in the wrong. She sees my heart and knew that my intentions were good. And she was grateful that I would stop periodically and wait for her to catch up – even if she was only 30 seconds behind me. But she did wish that I would have walked alongside her. I do too.
What I am learning is that what matters most is the shared experience. I am so bent towards getting things done and making things happen that I lose sight of that. Often. It sucks. I don’t want to. Rachel and I were together adventuring through unbelievably gorgeous part of Europe together, and she just wanted me to be with her, in mind, body, and action. To me, we had fully explored the White Cliffs, gotten refreshments at the lighthouse and seen all there was to see, and now that the highlights were finished, I just wanted to get home. That task-oriented thought took precedent over absolutely everything.
Thankfully, I didn’t betray irritation with my words or body language. I remember at a couple of points I wanted her to follow a less-scenic but more expedient pathway to where we needed to go, but she chose otherwise. She chose beauty over efficiency, she chose the moment over the mission. I could have said, “Love, can we please go this way so we can get back quicker?” I could have said, “I really think we should try to move faster if we can.” But I kept my mouth shut and tried to go with the flow. I wasn’t stressed, and was just like, okay, whatever, if we miss the train, we miss it, and we’ll handle it. No big deal. I’m glad for my attitude in that moment. I could have completely obliterated the beautiful and wonderful day we were having with one curt comment said in a singular moment of tiredness and exasperation. While not a fatal mistake, that would have been one I regretted for years.
I could have completely obliterated the beautiful and wonderful day we were having with one curt comment said in a singular moment of tiredness and exasperation.
Even though I still messed up, I do see that I am learning. I do see that I am growing. I am making progress. I’m surrendering control. I’m learning that in life, very, very few things are really worth getting worked up about. And that everything usually turns out fine in time. I didn’t need to fret or rush. I just needed to be okay with however the end of our hike turned out, and however late we ended up finally getting home. At least I was with my girl, spending time together, making memories, and living out our love. What more could I possibly want, and what more did I ever hope for in all the years before she came along? She – and her feelings – were, and are, most important, in any situation and context. I never want to justify or rationalize putting something else first, before her. Hopefully this time around, the lesson sticks.