I was spiritually naked for the first time in summer after my fifteenth birthday. That summer, I was one of fifteen students on a wilderness course; we spent a week hiking together in the backcountry, learning to cook, pitch tents and gut fish. We carried everything we needed on our backs. Sometimes we talked as we walked; sometimes we sang; sometimes we traveled in silence, listening to the hiss of the rain through the aspens and the spruce. That summer, for the first time, I spoke softly, solemnly and seriously about my family with a friend.
I know it does not exactly sound like a remarkable feat, but for me it was. I was always shy growing up and had learned to use humor as a cloak or a shield. When uncomfortable, my cheeks would instantly tighten into a smile. Once, a month before the start of the course, I grinned when a friend told me that his older brother had committed suicide.
I am not sure what I was afraid of, but I suspect it is simply that I did not know myself yet. The thought of standing fully exposed before another person, in the nakedness that comes with solemnity, frightened me not because they might see something bad inside me, but because they might see something small or absent, funny or trite. If at your most sacred core, you are laughable, then the only defense is to seem intentionally humorous.
I do not know exactly how I overcame it - something about the seriousness of the landscape around me, or living in a world of consequence beyond grades and evaluations - but it happened on the day that James broke his ankle. Three of us were on the way back to base camp from a solo hike up one of the nearby peaks, trotting down a smooth trail when he collapsed in front of me. We all heard the crunch, and the deformity was immediately obvious. We had to half-carry him for two miles back to camp. When we arrived, we were exhausted.
James was evacuated two hours later, and that night we were debriefed as a group around the campfire. As our companions questioned us, I answered simply and honestly. I talked about my fear at seeing the ankle, my irrational anger at James and my determination to get him back to the camp. It was not until I was back in my tent that night that I realized I had not once felt the desire to smile or to joke.
It is hard to put my finger on, but I learned something about myself that day that gave me a new and basic skill: making myself known, if only partially and momentarily, to another person, without shame or fear. It is not a skill I use every day, but it is the one I have tried to hang on to. Without it, even this simple essay would be beyond my ability to write.