When you think about that word, or imagine being in one, what is your gut feeling? Are you closer to feeling protected, safe from the dangers of the world as you hunker down till the threats have passed, or do you feel penned in, claustrophobic, choking on stale air?
I definitely have strong feelings about trenches, and it’s not because I used to teach military history.
I think trenches are a trap, especially deceptive ones that lure us in to a situation that we may not realize we are in until it’s too late, or at least we think it’s too late.
Trenches start as trails, and who doesn’t like a good trail? When hiking, a trail affords us sure footing and a confidence we are going the right way. Especially when we are in uncharted territory, trails can tell us we are headed in the right direction even when we don’t know which actual direction we are going. No need to think or reflect; just follow.
It’s also safe. We know there wouldn’t be a worn trail if it wasn’t a successful path made by those before, so why gamble by venturing where no one seems to choose to go?
And that’s the beginning of the trap.
Because we feel safe on the trail, we start to assume that, if we are not on the trail, there must be greater risk and danger. Why else would so many others stay on the trail, after all? Sure, there might be some undiscovered treasures if we wander off the path a bit, but why take the risk? Cost-benefit logic compels us to follow the secure, usual route even if we sacrifice potential wonders and adventures.
Ever walked on a trail that is so used, it starts to be lower than the surrounding ground? This is the beginning of a trench. If you are a hiker, no doubt you’ve come to a trail that is worn down several inches below the surrounding land, such that walking half-on, half-off the trail is uncomfortable. So what do we do? We commit fully to the trail lest we step awkwardly and trip.
We are now in a rut. So small we don’t really think of it as a trench because it gives us little cover and we can still see all around. It’s at most an ankle trench.
Imagine, however, if we and others then walked that trench every day, back and forth. The trench, and we traveling in it, would slowly sink deeper, probably so slowly we didn’t notice most days.
When we did finally notice the rising walls on either side of us, we might not see them as a confining enclosure. We might feel reassured by the walls as they guide and protect us. The ever-growing walls also begin to block out our view, including other possible paths, so that we might forget about life beyond the trench.
“No one would walk a path into a trench that long,” you say, and yet many of us unfortunately do; we just call it a career, or obligations, and shrug and tell ourselves we see no other choice through the walls of our trench.
I’m lucky. I got to engage in trench warfare (or warfare against trenches) when I gave up practicing law. I was in my early 30’s and unhappy in the fast-paced, “yuppy” world of business litigation, but even at that early stage people told me I had to stay. I had lawyer-salary house and car payments, my friends were all lawyers, I had prestige, and what else would I do?
I broke out of the trench and went into no man’s land. I won’t even begin to tell you it was easy. I drifted away from friends, I had to restructure all my financial obligations, my marriage broke up, and for the first time in my life, I had little definitive direction which way to go.
I was also free. I got to explore places I had never been, physically and mentally. I sent off letters that said, “I’m a lawyer with little experience beyond that, but give me a chance,” and with perseverance, and luck, I found a teacher inside of me that loved going to work for the next twenty-five years. I stopped having chest pains, got back in shape, met my soulmate, and discovered a more real, happier me that has carried me to this third life.
Since that grand trench escape, I have been consistently mindful of trenches and always look to escape them. I’m not sure how many times I’ve gone “over the top,” but I can say that every time I did I experienced three things:
- I was scared and unsure if it was the right thing to do at the time.
- At some point, I tripped up getting out of the trench, embarrassing myself.
- Looking back after a bit, I was always glad and celebrated my decision to leave the trench.
It’s summer, 2017. Jiab and I are checking out Granada, Spain. We’re generally people who settle in at night with Netflix by 8:00 pm and are in bed by 10:00 or 11:00. In Granada, however, 10:00 or 11:00 is when people come out, especially to loud, messy tapas bars.
We decide to try and break out of the trench. We go to a bar. It’s almost midnight, and the bar is elbow to elbow packed. We squeeze into a spot and order cañas of cerveza with accents that scream we have no idea what we are doing. Meanwhile, plates of tapas – shrimp, jamon & cheese, or peppers on toast – are circulating about and we pick up the method of just grabbing a couple when a plate passes by.
We’re breaking through, discovering life beyond the comfortable stay-at-home trench…and then I trip.
A guy comes in who is obviously a regular. He moseys up to the bar, silently exchanges head nods with the bartender, and is dispensed a beer. Shortly after, the bartender places by the regular a plate of lightly fried scallops. As the regular looks to his right, I reach around his left and take a couple of scallops from what I thought was another tapas plate.
Only it wasn’t. It was his meal.
The regular turns and looks at his plate, then up at me with a mix of “what the…?” and “How dare you?” The bartender stops serving and stares at me. It feels like the entire bar is staring at the presumptuous American who has few manners and even less ability to explain his mistake in Spanish.
How I longed to be in the safe isolation of my former trench at that moment, clapping my hands to turn out the bedside light and not be the object of scorn by seemingly all of Andalucia.
Needless to say, my apology (in three languages) was followed up by my paying for his drinks and the meal, and Jiab and I left. Walking back to our place, Jiab just kept rolling her eyes, while I kept a lookout for angry mobs.
If that had been the end, I might be writing this about 10:00 pm entrenched in my bed back in the States. Two nights later, however, we dare to step out late again (one actually has little choice if one wants to eat dinner in Spain). Walking to dinner, we notice a stage being set up in a small square and chairs being lined up on the perimeter. It looks like a concert, so we figure that, by the time we walk back, the square will be filled with Spanish youth in a Euro-techno lights and music fusion.
To our surprise, as we come back that way well after 11:00, there are few people there under 20, or 30, or 40, or even 50.
The band is playing and the square is filled with senior citizens, all laughing, talking, and holding hands, dancing flamenco, fandango, paso doble, and even some wild swing.
Jiab and I marvel for a moment, and then with unsure smiles at each other, we become the least-able dancers in the middle of the square.
And we don’t care. People smile at us, and nod assents and sign “thumbs up” to our repeated slightly off twirls and turns, even our “Are you leading or am I?” movements.
We join the celebration even if we can’t understand the words being sung, because this is a place where there are no walls, nor trenches, for anyone in that square.
And Jiab and I know in that moment we have found our new home, off the beaten path.