Gandalf: “You’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back.”
Bilbo: “You can promise that I’ll come back?”
Gandalf: “No. And if you do, you will not be the same.”
-from The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
When was the last time you had an adventure? Did you go for a camping trip and forget a stove? Did your car break down in the middle of nowhere and you didn’t have cell-phone service? Did you climb a mountain and rappel down a rock face for the descent? There’s a quote from Louisa May Alcott that says “I like adventures, and I’m going to find some.” Can we do that: get up and go find an adventure? I’d like to think so. I’d like to walk out my front door, drive over to the store, and browse the aisles for an adventure that catches my fancy. Perhaps my next adventure will be a backpacking trip into the Rocky Mountains. Or a boating excursion on the Great Lakes. I’ll go on some fun trip, have my adventure, and come back with stories and pictures to share. But is that all that there is to an adventure: just going out into nature? In some ways, yes. But in other ways, most certainly not. Let’s explore four possible interpretations for what makes an adventure an adventure.
The first possibility defines adventure as exploring something new. Adventure is something exciting, something which shakes us out of the rut of a daily hum-drum life. This is the usual definition meant when advertising and outdoor programs promise adventures. Now there is nothing wrong with this definition. As addressed in my last blog post, it is a very good thing for us products of modern culture to be shaken out of the dullness of a nature-less, work-focused world. Looking for something new and exciting invites an openness to awe and wonder.
However, if adventure is just a thrill, then there’s nothing challenging or transformative in it. It is merely another experience, albeit a new one. Let’s go further, then, and consider a second possible meaning of adventure. G.K. Chesterton once said: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” Attitude, according to Chesterton, is one of the most important factors in an adventure. And he’s not wrong, but we need to clarify that he’s not reducing adventure to merely attitude. It is true that we can be having either a positive or a negative experience in the same situation depending on our attitude. However, the difference between an adventure and an inconvenience is more than just smiling or frowning. It is the consideration of the negative experience as a lesson or as an opportunity for growth. It is the decision to make the positive experience a lasting memory not just an Instagram picture. Adventure is what makes an experience transformative rather than transitive.
How does it do this? What element of adventure changes us? This leads us to the third definition of adventure. Adventure exposes us to the unknown, the unexpected, and the dangerous. A fantastic quote I once found says, “It simply isn’t an adventure worth telling if there aren’t any dragons.” Of course, we’re not talking about actual, literal dragons. Though if you encounter one I’m sure it would be an adventure! In this context, dragons are referring to the elements in our experiences that terrify us. The unknown we don’t know how to handle. The unexpected we’ve never dealt with before. The dangerous that could hurt us. Dragons are outside of our comfort zone, and an adventure isn’t really an adventure if we’re not outside our comfort zone.
Now that’s sounds great and all. It is almost a cliche to encourage people to ‘Challenge yourself! Get out of your comfort zone!’ But why? Why should I get off my couch? Why should I hike a mountain? Why should plummet on skis down the black diamond? For all I know, I could die. Exactly! Dragons aren’t in our living room. The purpose of getting outside your comfort zone is to place yourself in a situation where you’re actually facing the dragon, not avoiding it. The point here isn’t that you’re outside of your comfort zone. The point is that you are encountering the part of yourself you aren’t satisfied with being.
This is the fourth, and, I believe, most meaningful way to describe an adventure. An adventure is that experience which brings you face to face with who you really are. That’s why it needs to be a dragon. The dangerous, unknown dragon forces you to question what part of yourself makes this situation one in which you are outside your comfort zone. When you are in that cave, looking into the dragon’s eye, you’re going to have a revelation where you suddenly question exactly what on earth you are doing in this cave. What brought you here? You are as much facing your true self as you are facing the dragon. You are seeing yourself in the dragon’s eye. And when you see yourself like that, suddenly you realize who you are, and who you are not. The reality of how far you fall short of who you are supposed to be. The knight in the fairytale who stood with raised sword as the dragon towered over him was always struck by his own puny insufficiency to conquer this adversary. This is exactly what adventure is, and what it does to us. In an adventure, the unknown and the dangerous in our exciting experience brings out our true selves, and forces us to question whether who we are is who we want to be. It transforms us because when we realize who we are supposed to be, we can never go back to the comfortable peace of ourselves on the couch.
Let’s tie all of these definitions together. To begin with, an adventure is something new and exciting. It takes the first step of getting us off the couch and out of the house. From there it is an experience which throws the unknown and even the dangerous at us, and requires a proper attitude so that we don’t turn around and go home crying. And once we decide to face the challenge of the adventure, it shows us what we need to change in ourselves in order to overcome and learn from the challenge.
Now we know what an adventure is, but how do we experience adventures? How do we find them? In all honesty, if you are trying to live a meaningful life and grow in holiness, adventures will be part and parcel of every part of your life. That being said, however, adventures are usually the most powerful in the outdoors. Let’s go back to the analogy of dragons. Dragons are not man-made. In fact, they represent the polar opposite of most man-made things. They are mysterious and unknown, possibly impossible to ever really understand. They are unpredictable, mostly because we don’t understand them. And they are powerfully dangerous, because their immense power is lethal and beyond human control. Nature can be described in much the same way. Nature is not created or controlled by humans; it is complicated, unknown, and often unpredictable; it is powerful and dangerous. Thus it is perfect for challenging us humans with transformative adventures.
This challenging aspect of nature is one of the key reasons why it serves as perfect conveyor of adventures. Going on hikes, going on backpacking trips, and leaving behind many of our normal conveniences of daily life is essentially uncomfortable. From the beginning of our experience with nature, we are forcing ourselves to do something we wouldn’t normally do in a place we wouldn’t normally be. There, we have to consider what is really important for survival and what is merely for ease. It is a certain kind of poverty: voluntary temporary poverty for the sake of the growth of our souls. Spending time in nature automatically takes the first few steps of an adventure for us. In the middle of the woods, we are stripped away from the safety of the castle walls and forced to stand directly in front of the dragon.
But there’s more. Nature, as I said before, is not man-made; rather, it is God-made. As such, nature reflects God’s truth. Art contains the maker’s signature, it sends an intended message, it reflects some aspect of the maker’s identity. Nature is God’s art, and as such, it tells us about God. Thus by experiencing nature we experience God. And the beautiful reality is that the more we learn about God, the more we learn about ourselves, who are made in the image and likeness of God. Nature’s vistas and experiences are as much mirrors of ourselves as they are pictures of God. Nature, by showing us God in the midst of our adventures, shows us all the more clearly how we are supposed to be as humans made in the image of God. We shall be far more terrified when beholding the face of God than we are when looking into a dragon’s eyes. But the dragon’s eyes give us a glimpse of how we might look in God’s eyes.
Before I send you off inspired to go searching for dragons in your nearby mountains, I want to emphasize one last thing. I have given several different aspects of an adventure, including the foreignness, the danger, the self-realization, and the importance of attitude. But the vital heart of an adventure is its transformative power. As such, it is memorable: not memorable in the sense that makes a good story, but memorable because you shall never really be able to forget it. The truest adventures affect the rest of your life. The lessons of the experience continue you to form you even after the experience itself is over. So be careful of the adventures you decide to face and the dragons you decide to fight, my friends. As Bilbo reminded us: “It’s a dangerous business…going out your door”, for you might not recognize the person that comes back again from the mountains.