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To Be at Peace with Our Essential Loneliness

“Always in big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into. You are undertaking the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place. It is an experience of our essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.

And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.”

— Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge

Whenever I’ve had a chance to spend time in “big woods,” I’ve relearned the truth of these words by Wendell Berry.

As we leave familiar ground and walk into “the ancient fear of the unknown” — whether it’s in the woods or at times of loss and illness — we learn something about what’s out there. But we learn even more about what’s in here.

In an unfamiliar place, we feel lost and full of fear. But if we keep walking into what Berry calls our “essential loneliness,” our self knowledge deepens — along with our sense of connection to others and to life itself.

The ultimate reward of walking through our fears and into the unknown is something everyone longs for: We come to feel more at home in our own skin and on the face of the earth.

As Berry says, this is a spiritual journey. But it’s a journey of only “one inch,” not of miles. We’re never far away from the ground on which we stand — and that’s good news!

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