We were beginning to realize that the trail we were following was not, in fact, a trail. It was a trail in the sense that there was a worn divet of dirt cutting through the brush and fallen leaves. Was it an official trail leading to some sort of summit? As I stepped over a fallen log and ducked under a low branch, I had my doubts. 

A few friends and I escaped the city on a glorious Saturday near the end of October. I texted my friend the day before to say, “If I don’t act excited tomorrow morning, it’s because 8 am is not my prime time of the day, not because I’m not excited for the hike.” 

I packed snacks and water into my small hiking backpack that morning. I glanced down at my umbrella. My groggy brain said I didn’t need it. Slinging my backpack over my shoulder, I walked out the door and into misting rain. A more functional version of my brain might have checked the weather before I left. A more functional version of my brain would have turned around and grabbed my umbrella. However, that brain was still snoozing and would not join the party for another couple of hours. I traipsed across Central Park drinking coffee and trying to walk under trees. 

We piled into the rental car and drove two hours to the trailhead. Mercifully, the rain stopped before we reached our destination. We hiked a half-mile to a waterfall that cascaded down a small cliff. From there, the trail continued for several miles to the summit. We reached a junction point and consulted the map. Left or right? A chain stretched across the trail to the left. A sign hanging off the center of the chain read, “Carriage road closed. No admittance.” That made our decision for us. We turned right. 

The trail was wide at first. It wasn’t long before it narrowed and the brush around us thickened. There was a couple ahead of us, which assuaged the doubts we voiced. We were following the river, so even if this wasn’t a legit trail, it would be easy to find our way back. What even is a trail, anyway, when you think about it? 

I don’t remember which of us said it first, but after forty-five minutes of wandering, we conceded. What we were following seemed more like a deer trail than something made for human use. There was no summit or endpoint as far as we could tell. We made our way to the river bank and sat down on a rock to have lunch. 

In that forty-five minutes of wandering, the hike organizer and I talked. We reasoned out which way the trail seemed to be headed, if anywhere. She wondered aloud if people were annoyed or upset that the hike wasn’t working out as we’d hoped. I’ve been neck-deep in story-telling research and chose that moment to repeat something I heard from writing coach Allison Fallon. “It’s not a good story if everything goes right.” I continued with a line I’d heard Donald Miller say once, “The hero needs obstacles to overcome in order to transform.” 

I don’t know if this was comforting or annoying for my friend to hear as we wound our way through the woods. Maybe a little of both. 

When I’m going through life and there are obstacles or points of tension, I try to remember these bits of information. There are times, however, that I don’t know how much I care about it being a good story. If good stories are made up of a series of problems and resolutions that transform the main character, sometimes I think I would be ok with a boring story. 

Certain problems are unavoidable, however. Human error, circumstances beyond our control, systemic brokenness–what is one human person to do in the face of these kinds of forces? What happens when the story we’re living isn’t the one we wanted? What happens when the problems we face are beyond what one person is able to fix? What happens when we thought we were following the “right” path, only to look around and realize it doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere? 

I’m not sure I know the answer. What I can say is that, if everything worked out exactly as I planned and wanted, I’m not sure I’d feel a pressing need for God or other people. I’m not sure how compassionate I would be to the people I encounter. In the middle of the hard things and the hits that keep on coming, I’m not sure how comforting any of that is. In these moments, it has been helpful to prayerfully reflect on a few things. 

  • Where do I have agency in this situation? 
  • Where can I let myself be human? 
  • If I look around at the people in my life, do I see any guides who are a little further down the path? 
  • Is there an invitation somewhere in this situation? 
  • How do I honestly feel about this and how do I want to express those feelings? 

I’m not sure what exactly you might be going through, where you might be wondering if you’ve taken a wrong turn. I hope you can be honest with yourself and God about it. I hope these questions point you toward hope and goodness. 

What helps you when you are going through a rough part of your story? Leave a comment and let me know!