I often find myself walking into a stand of Juniper trees out in the Utah desert. I am a wilderness therapist with Outback Therapeutic Expeditions. From week to week, the trees may be different, but the scene is usually familiar. There is a fire nestled under a tarp shelter, and surrounding that fire are several teenage boys. Although I generally expect what I will see each week, I can never predict the mood that will greet me when I walk into those trees. The feelings and attitudes of those boys vary from week to week.
I have many students who wonder how they can be happy in the desert. Other students say that the simplicity of the desert, helps them feel happier than they did in the comforts of home. What makes the boys feel so differently? The desert is no more harsh to one individual over another, but the attitude of that person and their ability to be challenged will create the misery or happiness they experience in the desert.
A common student complaint is that the food is “just” beans and rice. Over time, I have learned that the way in which a student attends to the food that they eat will greatly affect their mood. I don’t mean to say that food creates happiness, but I have found that the students who find creative ways to improve their food, will find an increased level of satisfaction not only with the meal but also with the program.
Recently I came upon a scene that illustrated a positive shift in the attitude of the group. A student ran up to me and told me he had invented a way to make apple pie over the fire. He was very excited about his invention and was satisfied with the quality and variety of food offered in the field. At dinner time, he made another batch of his “wilderness apple pie” and gave me a piece. The quality of pie was great, and not just because I was camping. I would buy a piece of this pie in a café. The word quickly spread about the kid who made a “wilderness apple pie” and everyone in the group wanted to make it.
I have reflected often on this story. Each student is given the same ingredients, but what they are able to make with them can vary greatly. Similarly, each student comes into the same program, but what they are able to make of their experience will be entirely up to them.
The late William Glasser, author of Reality Therapy and Choice Theory, was a premier psychiatrist in his day. One pillar of his theory is that we create our own happiness and misery. The students in the desert that are unhappy choose unhappiness and the students that are happy choose to be happy. For most people, happiness is a choice. It may not be as easy as apple pie, but that’s a good place to start.
Trevor Allen, CMHC
Primary Boy’s Therapist