Lessons from the Desert in Times of Crisis- Mary Reynolds Thompson

If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place

that allows us to remember the sacred.


Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert

is a pilgrimage to the self.

There is no place to hide and so we are found. ––Terry Tempest Williams

Emerging from months of sheltering in place, I think, metaphorically, of how this has been a desert time. We have endured unimaginable levels of isolation. Simultaneously, with so many distractions removed, our illusions have been stripped from us, our society and souls laid bare.

At times it can feel like the end of the world, almost apocalyptic. The word for apocalypse comes from the Greek word, Apokálypsis, which means “lifting of the veil”, or finding the hidden, secret thing. As many have written, during these past tumultuous months, our social, economic, racial, and healthcare systems have been exposed for what they are––fragile at best, horrendously unjust and brutal at worst.

In this moment of revelation, when so many underlying assumptions, even certitudes about the world are turning to dust, the tension is almost unbearable: Will we move in the direction of change and growth? Or will we attempt to retreat from the realities we confront?

For the desert snake, there is no choice. The snake must shed its old skin in order to make room for growth or it will die. In terms of our own lives, we, too, must recognize that if we don’t take this opportunity to grow and evolve, even worse suffering will ensue. So much depends on releasing our outmoded structures, beliefs, and destructive ways of being.

Today, with even greater urgency, we are being called to the deep work of death and renewal. In order to begin shedding, the desert snake makes a tear in its skin by rubbing against a hard surface. We also need to be willing to withstand the friction and tension required in order to let go of what no longer serves us.  

There is another Greek word that speaks to our times. The Greek krino, for “crisis,” also means separating. Contemplating the desert landscape, we realize that change is inevitable. We will be separated from the old ways. Nothing in the desert is permanent; wind and water constantly shift and shape the land. A flash flood can re-form the entire terrain in a moment. Even if you wanted to, you cannot hold on.

The energy it takes to cling to a failed system, once loosed, can open us to the beauty of what is possible. By doing the hard work of shedding what limits us and keeps us small, we are growing our visions and souls large enough to contain the new world that is emerging.

 We are vulnerable. We are scared. But we are changing.


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Mary Reynolds Thompson is the author of Embrace Your Inner Wild and Reclaiming the Wild Soul: How Earth’s Landscapes Restore Us to Wholeness. She is also an instructor for the non-profit TreeSisters, a facilitator of poetry therapy and journal therapy, and a certified life coach who has helped thousands of people discover and live their Wild Soul Story. She is the founder of Write The Damn Book, a program that guides writers on the heroic journey from procrastination to publication, and is a core faculty member of the Therapeutic Writing Institute in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.

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