Embracing the Adventure: How Backpacking Helped Me Overcome Perfection Paralysis in My Spiritual Life

Two female hikers outside of the entrance to Mount Tamalpais State Park
The author and a friend at Mount Tamalpais State Park.

One of my friends and I are finally taking the next step in our hiking life: We’ve decided to go on our first overnight backpacking trip! We’re proficient day-hikers, and have covered many local trails and different terrains. We know the difference between, say, poison oak and berry brambles (“Leaves of three, let it be – unless it’s hairy; that’s a berry!”), and can navigate trails using a map and compass. We’re experts at layering our clothes for fickle Bay Area microclimates, and wholeheartedly embrace the “leave no trace” philosophy, taking nothing but pictures and leaving nothing but footsteps.

But for some reason, despite our experience and know-how, we’re feeling paralyzed by the preparation for this new adventure.

We’ve researched endless hike-in camping sites and trails; figured out what gear we can rent and what we should purchase; read blogs and listened to podcasts by other young, female backpackers; and warmed up with plenty of day hikes. The only thing that’s left is to jump into it — but boy, does that jump seem like a big one!

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There are still so many unknowns nagging at us that, despite our best intentions, we’ve found ourselves in “perfection paralysis” — that unproductive state where you find you’ve completely stalled out because you want everything figured out first. This isn’t meant to disparage preparation — obviously, it is wise for us to research trails, acquire the necessary permits, and develop a safety plan before we go. It’s just that nobody should have to feel like they need to have everything perfectly figured out before making that educated leap. As good as preparation is, at a certain point it’s holding us back from the main course: the actual adventure.

Two women hiking in the forest
The author and her friend on a hiking excursion.

I think a lot of people have that same paralyzing figure-it-all-out-first approach with God and their faith lives. Sometimes I hear people say, “Well, once I settle down with a family, I’ll start going to Mass.” Another one is, “If I could only get over my fear of being judged, then I’d talk to a priest.” Or maybe, “When I’ve read enough Scripture to go to a Bible Study without embarrassing myself, I’ll join one.” Eventually, there are so many self-imposed prerequisites for jumping into practicing our faith that all of a sudden, we’re at the end of our life and we’ve never moved forward. The even sadder problem is, this approach doesn’t allow for the beauty of actually living a life of a true faith that relies on God to be our strength where we fall short.

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Just like how part of the greatness of backpacking trips is growing as we live through challenges and making new discoveries about the world and about ourselves, part of the greatness of our faith is its real-life application to the mess and stress of life, rather than trying to figure it all out before jumping in. At a certain point, research and preparation are just holding us back from the real adventure of a life in Christ.

If the leap seems too big to take all at once, take educated baby steps instead: Find a Mass time that works for you and commit to going once a week, either alone or with your family or a friend. Email your pastor and see if he’s free for coffee (or maybe ice cream!) to chat about your spiritual life. Call up a church friend or email your local parish to see if there’s a group that meets for faith sharing or Scripture study, and try it out for a month. Don’t be afraid to take the next jump in your faith life — you can be sure the Lord will carry you across to the other side, backpack and all.

Originally published on July 19, 2021.