Winter 2019 / Human & Nature

A Constant Push for Perfection

by Brandon McWilliams

Critically Acclaimed

Stumbling my way up the first of many boulder fields, the sun glaring in my eyes and sweat dripping from every pore, I was already disheartened. This month-long mountaineering excursion into Washington’s Northern Cascades wasn’t turning out to be the carefree nature experience that I had needed it to be. That wondrous feeling I had remembered experiencing as a child was nowhere to be seen.

Views like this one were waiting for 17-year-old Brandon McWilliams when he set out to rediscover his love of nature in Washington State’s Northern Cascades, but the terrain wasn’t his greatest obstacle. PHOTO: GREGG M. ERICKSON.

No, this was just work. Hard work. Somehow, this is even worse than what I left behind, I thought as I slipped off the mossy edge of a boulder, barely avoiding a face plant onto a sharp granite flake. After hours of endless ascent and a couple more slips, I crested the boulder field and entered a moss-hung evergreen forest, chasing a glimmer of hope.

Then, the cast-iron clouds that had been ominously building all day erupted into a drenching storm.

~~

Just a few days earlier, I was living a different reality. As a 17-year-old, I moved through a world of conflicting messages. Everyone had an opinion on how I should live my life, from the poster in my English classroom that told me to follow my dreams to the relative who told me that money is the key to happiness.

 

For my generation, Gen Z, the struggle is particularly fraught…more than 90 percent of us experience some combination of depression, anxiety, and stress.

 

Day and night, I was bombarded.

“Plan for your future!” People would say. “What you do now impacts the rest of your life!”

“Have fun! You’re only young once!”

“Don’t be so spoiled! Life isn’t just handed to you.”

“Remember, always be yourself! But don’t be too weird, or you’ll never make friends.”

“Are you politically active? Do you play a musical instrument? A sport? You’re doing volunteer work, right? How many languages have you learned so far? You’ve got to become a well-rounded person.”

“Only take classes you love!! But also take every AP class you can.”

“You’ve got to be the best at whatever you do, or what’s the point?”

And on and on, until the voices all blurred into one dull roar.

~~

The transition from childhood to adulthood is always a difficult time. Yet for my generation, Gen Z, the struggle is particularly fraught, as young adults across the country deal with mental health emergencies and rising suicide rates. The number of children hospitalized for attempted suicide doubled between 2008 and 2015. Suicide among girls aged 10 to 19 rose by 70 percent between 2010 and 2016. We have the worst mental health of any generation polled by the American Psychological Association, and more than 90 percent of us experience some combination of depression, anxiety, and stress.

And most of us can’t even buy a beer yet.

Experts are conflicted as to the cause of our anguish. Maybe it’s the web of political, financial, and environmental crises. Perhaps the advent of social media and the pervasiveness of technology makes forming a unique, healthy identity difficult. Or it could be all of these factors and more—working in hideous tandem.

For me, it was the combination of constant, lofty expectations surrounding me, along with the specter of student debt and the constant stream of glittering, flawless lives on social media that drove me to think that I had only one slim chance for a successful future. Any deviation from the “correct” path would bring me unfulfilled potential and sadness.

The only remedy was a constant push for perfection.

But after a grueling school year spent sprinting from AP classes to varsity crew practice to volunteer work to ACT study sessions, I was exhausted. If this was how my life was going to be to achieve success, I thought, I might as well throw in the towel now.

~~

I was wet. The trees were wet. The ground was wet. My underwear was wet. I quickly began to question what I had been thinking.

In childhood, nature had always brought me joy and peace. It brought the taste of sun-warmed blackberries. It brought the soft, reassuring rustling of leaves and chirping of birds. It brought long, meandering walks with my mother. I desperately wanted that peace and happiness to be part of my life again — I saw it as the one spark that would keep me afloat.

When I shouldered the heaviest pack I had ever carried and stepped onto that Washington trail, away from the chatter of the world and the Internet, I thought that maybe, just maybe, nature could be my passion.

But this was not the tranquility that I remembered. The rainstorm went on for four days, soaking me as I thrashed through bushes, lunged over jagged deadfalls, crawled under twenty-foot walls of grasping branches. When I stumbled into the clearing or glade that was our makeshift campsite for the night, I would collapse, tired to the bone and covered in scrapes and bruises. Then I would realize that there was even more work to do: Tents had to be raised, food cooked, gear cleaned and dried. I barely made it into my sleeping bag every night before unconsciousness took me. Some break this was, I would think bitterly.

This was just as much of a struggle as what I had tried to escape.

In the Northern Cascades, 17-year-old McWilliams and other climbers navigate obstacles and contemplate the inescapable struggles of life. PHOTO: BRANDON MCWILLIAMS.

One morning, as we were slogging our way through a particularly dense section of forest, my musings on my burning legs, bruised shoulders, and damp socks was interrupted. I looked up from my feet.

I was surrounded by perfectly straight pillars of tree trunks, 50 feet tall. Their canopy protected a bed of verdant green moss which covered the forest floor like a living carpet. In the middle of this pristine cathedral sat a massive boulder that was slowly being consumed by the earth, with licorice ferns and huckleberry colonizing its top. As we skirted around the edge of this monolith, the utter stillness of the place struck me. Where had this come from? It didn’t occur to me until that night that I hadn’t thought about the ache in my feet all day after that.

The rain finally relented as we broke the treeline and zig-zagged our way up the flank of the Middle Cascade Glacier to our first rest day. I was once again taken aback, not only by the sunset that blazed across the sky, reflecting on the cool blue of the glacier, but also by the smile that was creeping across my face. I was cold, wet, hungry, and tired, but I couldn’t seem to shake a feeling of joy. Being in this place, witnessing such a wonder as I worked at my limit; I felt privileged to be there. Somehow, the distance between me and my destination seemed less like an obstacle and more like an opportunity. How strange.

 

Sitting in my tent one evening, listening to a glacial stream chuckle itself to sleep, I suddenly sat up, my mind shaken out of its pleasant drifting. I had realized something.

 

Kool-Aid Lake provided another moment of awe. Despite our constant jokes about it being grape-flavored, once we perched next to the tarn, I found the perspective of the valley’s descent sublime. I sat and stared — for hours. I even volunteered to cook dinner for my group despite the siren song of a nap. Somehow, over the last year, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed cooking.

I’ll have to remedy that, I thought, as I contentedly stirred a pot of pasta and looked out over the world.

~~

Sitting in my tent one evening, listening to a glacial stream chuckle itself to sleep, I suddenly sat up, my mind shaken out of its pleasant drifting. I had realized something.

It would always be work. Classes, tests, sports, college admissions. Even this trip, where we had walked long miles, climbed thousands of feet, carried packs weighing as much as a medium-sized child. I would never escape the work. Yet here, work came with something else: a contentedness, a glow that had been missing from my life for a long time.

Living in a frantic, connected, achievement-based world is a battle for anyone, and especially for my generation. But I now know that it’s possible to experience joy even as we struggle. It happens a lot, actually, if we take our eyes off our destination and look around.

As I sat in my tent, I thought back on that evening by the lake. On the face of it, my life was as complicated as ever: I was still a teenager trying to figure out what my future would hold. But at least for a moment, when I looked at the sun setting upon the glacier, I could loosen my grip on the perfection that had driven me so constantly and focus instead on the perfection that was already there — right in front of me.

Brandon McWilliams

Brandon McWilliams is a writer, outdoor educator, and college student who tells stories to encourage people to think about how they treat the world around them.

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