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Discovery through Reflection

Photo by Photo by Ryan Hutton on Unsplash
“I have to write to discover what I am doing…I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it over again”
O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor

ENGL 317: Wilderness Writing climaxed in a three-day cross-country skiing/backpacking trip in the Uinta Mountains. As a novice cross-country skier and backpacker, I was pretty proud of how far I had come out of my comfort zone in this class. But on the second night, after trekking out into the dark forest, dousing all our lights, and hearing the story of a boy dragged off by a grizzly bear in Alaska—the plan my friend and I had to sleep out under the stars that night set my stomach to nervous bubbling. I’d come too far though in proving to myself that I could do new and uncomfortable things to turn back. But apparently that wasn’t enough to fend off my newfound fear of bears. I spent most of the night crammed deep into my sleeping bag, heart pounding as I imagined that brazen grizzly dragging off his prize. Sunrise the next morning was about the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen as I scrambled out of my bear burrito sleeping bag, wholly intact.

Almost a year later, I based a series of micro-essays on that night, exploring different facets of what I had experienced. At about 300 words, each new episode allowed me to make connections and see aspects that together created a rich and complex understanding of this one experience. The excerpts below illustrate how reflection can empower an individual to identify and synthesize tensions of an experience so as to discover and refine his or her own understanding of self.

Excerpt from Episode 2:          

Photo by Photo by Ryan Hutton on Unsplash

Pinpricks of white and red and blue stud the black bolt of midnight sky, framed by crooked branches of the barren trees. How am I supposed to understand the vastness of this galaxy imprinting itself on my retinas?…An icy pit hardens in my chest. Sleeping under the stars was supposed to be encouraging, warmly awe-inspiring. Instead, the wind rifles unfeelingly through the trees overhead. It couldn’t care less that I’m lying here on the frozen ground, scrunched inside this mummy of a sleeping bag, anxious for morning. The wind has no feelings, no thought, it only blows and rattles and sweeps and moves on.

This episode revolves around my observation of the star-littered sky and the discomfort I had felt lying beneath it. What I hadn’t realized until I wrote this, however, was that the first had led to the second—my emotional unease was the result of what I saw in the sky above me and what I believed about it. Reflection allowed me to tie observation and feeling together, giving me a new perspective of myself and how I see the world.

Excerpt from Episode 4:

If I’m honest, it was the feeling of having no control.

            The stars gyrated through the black heaven above; their massive gravitational pulls welded together gases and rocks, overpowering individual autonomy. The tree branches scraped against each other, hardy limbs resisting snow and ice and wind and heat year after year… When it comes right down to it, being out here has stripped me bare. Whispered in my ear that I have no control, no chance, that my survival and I are only lucky consequences of a thousand coincidences and benefactors I had no claim to.

Where previous episodes had focused on feelings immediately connected to the experience, this micro-essay stepped back in order to connect those reactions to a larger issue I recognized in myself—my need to be in control. This was a key essay among the others because it revealed to me a truth that I hadn’t recognized in the moment of the experience. Without this reflective micro-essay, I might not have peeled back the layers of those initial emotions to examine their roots and learn this deeper reality about my own character.

Excerpt from Episode 6:

She does not realize that she is the same as us. We may have been first out of the buckling galactic dust, but what we did not wrap up in our swirl of gravitational pull became comets, asteroids, planets—and everything on them. We are only one manifestation of creation’s genius, and we too are drawn from the same source that fuels the universe. 

But when she looks up at us, she sees only cold, indifferent space. What she does not see is that life for us too began when we collapsed in on ourselves. What she does not see is that the universe’s law of transformation hinges on the synonymous relationship between what ends and what begins. What she does not see is that we shine only because at our core, we burn.

This episode is the only of these micro-essays that takes a third-person perspective—an outside source narrating its take on my experience—and yet that step away from myself allowed me to imagine other realities at play—again, moving me past my initial feelings and reactions to connections I otherwise wouldn’t have made. Here we see a move away from fear and discouragement and towards an effort to connect what may appear at first to be disastrous to something transformative, even desirable. This micro-essay helped me to better see the meaning that I could find in this experience, whereas letting it pass by without reflection would have let it sink into my memory as “that one awful night I really don’t want to remember.”

Excerpt from Episode 10:

But it was after. After Elijah felt the blistering heat fall away, then what he had surely desired, what I imagine he had fervently prayed for as the world seemed to rend itself beneath his feet, finally came…And now a year later I wonder, for Elijah and me both, if it was really about finding you all along. Because your voice came to me too. But it was after the frigid wind, after the clawing branches, after the hungry echoes of animals elsewhere in the forest, after the unraveling sky. It seems that for both of us, for its delay, for its contrast, your voice was all the more poignant.

In this final episode, I stepped almost entirely away from my immediate experience and reflected instead on parallels with the Old Testament prophet, Elijah. When I finally came to writing this piece, I had spent about 12 weeks reflecting and writing and revising the preceding episodes, and together, they led me to the realization that what I had been struggling to articulate all the way through was the insignificance and even abandonment I felt in relation to God. I had been experiencing tension between what I believed and what I had felt that night,

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but it wasn’t until I spent several weeks writing these micro-essays that I burrowed far enough into my mind and heart to understand what I was really saying. Not all reflective writing is concerned with spirituality, but it does often lead us to thoughts and feelings we are deeply invested in. It helps us discover what we really think and feel and therefore helps us to understand a little bit better who we really are.