Over the weekend, I went on a camping trip with four of my friends to break the daily struggle and grind of working 40 hours a week and studying for the MCAT. Although I did have some time to pack, I did not do so nearly enough. By the time we left to drive from Atlanta to the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, all I had was a backpack with a sweatshirt, change in clothes, and MCAT books. The decision was made partially out of laziness, but also out of a desire to embrace the uncertainty of camping and hiking completely unprepared: a friend had told me that if I didn't bring a sleeping bag or at least a blanket, I would be in a world of trouble. Nevertheless, I persisted in doing it my own stupid way.
When we got to the campsite, we walked through a stream where the rocks were very slippery. Apparently, I was the least coordinated of us all: I fell twice and got my clothes completely soaked within seconds. But standing there and just walking, I thought a lot about everything. I generally don't love nature that much. I think it's nice, don't get me wrong, but when it comes down to drinking a couple beers with a some friends in a basement or going on a hike, I'd choose the former any day of the week.
Anyways, as I was walking and making loops through this stream, a quote I'd read in Maureen Dowd's 2012 NYTimes article, "Why, God?" kept occurring to me and repeating itself in my mind, time and time again. I just couldn't shake it. It was an article written by Father Kevin O'Neil, where he responded to the question, "Why, God?" as to why God allows tragedy, pain, and suffering to happen in the world. It was written right after the Newtown Sandy Hook shootings in 2012.
"For whatever reason, certainly foreign to most of us, God has chosen to enter the world today through others, through us. We have stories of miraculous interventions, lightning-bolt moments, but far more often the God of unconditional love comes to us in human form, just as God did over 2,000 years ago."
But during the moment, it dawned upon me that especially that last part was especially true in my life. The God of unconditional love has come to me in human form, in the form of the the friends I was with that appreciated me and invited me to camp with them, in the team and close friends that never gave up on me all the times I gave up in myself, in the various mentors in the various spheres of my life that have shown me paths and values to follow, and in the family that I have gone through hell and back with. The God of unconditional love was each and every one of my classmates, teammates, and my brother, all of whom have suffered next to me and given me community in these moments.
Completely tuning out my surroundings, I walked, stumbled, and fell, having these thoughts about how the people who have come into my life, and how despite the various quarrels and disagreements we've had, unconditional love is one of the most valuable thing I've earned in my interactions with others. The people in my life saved me when I couldn't. One of my friends told me a couple months ago about his relationship struggles with a girl he liked since childhood, but how he would endeavor to be friends with her unconditionally. Even though the circumstances between them weren't favorable, and even though that was hard for both of them, true love is when the circumstances don't matter.
I thought about that a good amount in my day to day interactions with others - and I'm not perfect at it, but that's something I've actively tried to get better at as I've proceeded through life. I've wanted to make it so people never, ever had to earn my respect or kindness, more so out of trying to reckon and live with myself and following my moral code than anything.
Then, in the middle of that thought, I found my friends again and we proceeded to do whatever we planned next. Eventually, we decided to go hiking at Andrews Bald in the Smoky Mountains, with plans to see the sunset. Midway through the hike, I looked left and saw what I thought were just two huge squirrels, however, within two seconds, I realized they were actually baby bears. Before my instincts could even kick in, I just said to my friends, "oh hey, there are bears," in the most calm, nonchalant voice in my life. My friends looked over and started freaking out and talking at the top of their lungs as we walked past and pretended like nothing happened.
We got to Andrews Bald and just stayed there watching the sunset, drinking a couple of beers. We took a couple pictures and just ate dinner, largely in silence. We went back to the campsite, and this is when the lack of preparation came back to bite: my roommate, Greg, and I slept in a tent with no blankets or sleeping bags, each of us with just sweatshirts. Initially, it was fine. It was 70 degrees and we were extremely comfortable even though we were essentially sleeping on the ground.
However, an hour and a half later, at 1:30 a.m., we both woke up in the freezing cold in 50 degree weather. I scrambled for any form of warmth or clothing, only to find my friend's pants that she left in the tent and put them on for only a semblance of relief. However, my bones still felt like ice. Physically incapable of going back to sleep, I started rocking back and forth sitting up trying to generate body heat. My roommate eventually started doing the same thing. It was in that moment that I realized how miserable that experience would have been to go through together, but as Greg was next to me after making the same mistakes and going through the same ordeal, I realized that that made everything better. I realized this in that moment:
I came in completely unprepared and even though that's something I wouldn't ever want to do again for the sake of myself and others, it was the absolute vulnerability and the having to rely on the grace of my friends that I loved about the entire experience. I thought it brought me closer to each of them - because the fact that I probably would have wasted away and died without their help made me appreciate them and have conversations with them that I previously didn't think I would have. There was a huge amount of uncertainty going into the weekend - I had said yes to the offer in almost a heartbeat because I wanted to break out of my routine and comfort zone for a cost-effective trip over the weekend. I saw views of mountains that will go unrivaled to this day.
Going into camping in the Smoky Mountains gave me that time and space to be vulnerable and have an out of the world experience with my friends. Yes, I would have done a lot of things differently - I probably should at least bring blankets next time. My friends later joked that I should be fully in charge of planning the next camping trip. But that experience over the weekend, in connection with nature and more importantly, in connection with others, was something I wouldn't trade for anything.