sus-te-nance, noun: means of sustaining life; nourishment.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I backpacked in the mountains east of San Diego. The weather was dry and warm – California’s perfect spring – and we hiked through chaparral, pine trees, and meadows on our way in. Our campsite was a breezy inlet just off the trail. The site didn’t have fresh water, but we had packed filters and figured we could sanitize water from the nearby well.
We were wrong. Even with the help of heavy-duty filters and an enthusiastic Boy Scout troop, the water remained murky and tasted like metal. It coated our throats and left residue caked on our water bottles. But we didn’t have another option, so bottoms up it was. Miraculously, the well water got us through the weekend. We drank it, used it to cook and didn’t get sick. The water did the trick for a few days, but it couldn’t sustain us for long.
I was reminded of something while camping: you intentionally do without. You choose to forego small luxuries like water from the tap for the experience of living closer to the earth. I think hardship feels a bit like camping, because it’s characterized by what you go without. Hardship is the absence of something essential to wellness. Loss, loneliness, and uncertainty are each marked by a lack of – lack of answers, companionship, or a clear trajectory.
Historically, people have sought out hardship as a spiritual exercise. Around 300 A.D. a group of bishops established a practice called Lent – a self-imposed period of going without. Men and women would give up various pleasures for 40 days before Easter, entering a spiritual desert to be prepared. The Desert Fathers and Mothers (who set the course for modern monasticism) took the concept even further by living austere lives of solitude in the wilderness to seek divine wisdom without distraction.
Both the bishops and desert mystics understood something I often forget: hardship prepares us. Growth blooms out of suffering, giving us more than we had before. Yet most of life’s dry spells – of suffering, waiting, and grief – arrive unannounced. What happens when we don’t choose to enter the desert, yet somehow find ourselves in the middle of it anyway? How do we learn a lesson that we never asked to be taught? It has everything to do with our sustenance.
What happens when we don’t choose to enter the desert, yet somehow find ourselves in the middle of it anyway?
“Live on coffee and flowers,” The National front-man Matt Berninger sings, “try not to worry what the weather will be.” This is how I feel when I distract myself from my own heartache. Coffee and flowers have a short lifespan, and when I live on pleasant distractions I end up over-caffeinated and underfed. Fighting loneliness by choosing saccharine over wholesome nourishment means denying myself the chance to learn. What we fill ourselves with during seasons of hardship makes all the difference between a missed opportunity and the potential for growth.
There’s a type of sustenance that is core to wellness. It’s different for everyone, and no one can prescribe a diet. I’ve found it helpful to ask myself, What am I truly living off of? Am I self-distracting in order to take my mind off my pain, or am I choosing my sustenance wisely? These questions can make dry months much more palatable. I’m slowly learning to meet hardship with community, rest, curiosity, the outdoors, prayer, conversation, and silence. In the end, the best sustenance doesn’t numb us, but rather equips us to move through difficult seasons with clear eyes.
In the end, the best sustenance doesn’t numb us, but rather equips us to move through difficult seasons with clear eyes.
Are you in a desert? Learn to ask yourself, am I choosing sustenance that fosters growth or that distracts me? Fill yourself with things that will sustain you through the dry spell. Eat well and seek shade. Suffering is inevitable, and we will continue to experience barren periods. But choosing our food and water wisely allows us to receive the corresponding growth, and to emerge from the desert holding something better than when we entered.
What is your food and water at present? Is it nourishing or distracting?
Image via Milena Mallory