On Sunday night, I experienced my first real taste of fear on the trail. Feel Good and I had just left Erwin, TN and only hiked four miles into the Cherokee National Forest to the Curley Maple Gap Shelter for the night. When we arrived, there were four young men already there, all younger than I am.
After setting up my sleeping pad in the shelter, I went out to the picnic table to start cooking my dinner. Naturally, I introduced myself to the other fellows and we started chatting. I got to know that three of them are from the deep south (Alabama and Arkansas) and the other from the midwest. The conversation fizzled as we began to stuff our faces.
When the conversation started back up, one of the guys asked me what the meaning was behind my wearing a rainbow button on my Bruins cap. I told them I wore it as a statement of pride and LGBTQ awareness. He quipped back, “Well, don’t they already have enough awareness?” Apparently not, I thought silently to myself. I bowed my head and decided I didn’t want to pick this fight. I didn’t stay silent long, however.
“Hey, did you guys see those transgenders [sic] that were hiking the other day?” asked one of the guys.
“No way! Did you kill them?” asked another.
“What the fuck did you just say?” I blurted out.
“It was just a joke.”
“It didn’t sound like a joke,” I replied.
“Well, people are too offended these days.”
I got up and walked over to my sleeping pad to lay down. Feel Good gave me a knowing look as I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths to cleanse myself of the negative energy I was allowing to fester. But in that moment, I realized I was quite scared about how these four men might act once the sun went down and I was asleep. Would they hurt me? Would they hurt my friend, Feel Good? Were they capable of hurting those two transgender hikers?
The next morning, I woke up and got breakfast in to pre-soak while I put on tefillin and said my morning prayers. One after another, the four men started their hike for the day, while I stayed and ate my breakfast in silence. At some point, I decided to pull up this week’s parsha (the weekly portion of the Torah) and read it.
One of the verses that really stuck out to me was Leviticus 26:37: “And they shall stumble over one another.” The Talmudic Sages, in Sanhedrin 27b, teach us that this verse means that we are each responsible for one another. They further say that each person will stumble over the sin of their fellow. Everything started to become clear, though my next step began to weigh heavy on my mind.
In my workshops on wilderness spirituality, I teach about the Oneness of Creation. We are one human family made up of atoms forged in the hearts of dying stars. We are made of starstuff and as such need to see ourselves as a part of the natural universe rather than apart from it. When we see our fellows as a part of the Oneness that permeates the universe, we want them to be loved as we are loved, free as we are free, and to thrive as we thrive. In short, we want for them what we want for ourselves.
Rabbi Hillel taught “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole of the Law, all the rest is commentary.” Jesus of Nazareth taught his followers to “Do to others what you want them to do to you.” And Muhammad ibn AbdAllah is quoted as teaching “None of you are truly believers until you love for your fellow what you love for yourself.” It was time for me to find these fellow hikers and try to open up a dialogue.
Over the next 13 miles to the Cherry Gap Shelter, I went over my own personal story. I decided that this was an opportunity for me to put my training into practice. By the time I got to the shelter, I had gone over all the major points I wanted to hit and had reviewed the general public narrative guidelines set by Marshall Ganz.
At the shelter, I called the four guys over and said that I owed them an apology for pre-judging and dismissing them the previous evening. I told them I wanted to get to know them better and, in turn, would hope they’d let me share my own story with them. And so we did.
When we had finished, we had all apologized to one another for various transgressions we felt we had committed against the others. They told me they had never heard a story like this before and that it really made each of them think about just how serious the things they said could be to someone listening. It really seemed, to me, that they had come away with a different point of view – one that would continue to remind them of their own part in the Oneness for many years to come.
It started out as fear for me. But when I turned it to love and realized I was in the right place at the right time to teach and learn, I knew I had to act on that love of my fellow. This didn’t mean I wasn’t still nervous, but as Grey Panther leader, Maggie Kuhn, taught, we must “Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind — even if your voice shakes.” It won’t always turn out this well. I know first hand. But we must confront the power of violence and hatred with the power love and compassion. When we “act justly and walk humbly with the Eternal Oneness,” (Micah 6:8) we can muster the courage to let love guide us into the hearts of our fellows.
Live Long and Prosper.