What 48 Hours Alone in the Wilderness Taught Me About Unconditional Love

Editor’s note: I have gotten to know Paul DeJoe during the past several months over coffee and phone calls. Recently, Paul told me he was flying to Sayulita, Mexico for 11 days with only a passport and a book. It was an experiment in changing environments, overcoming challenges, and self-exploration. I asked to publish his story when he returned. This is the result.

Paul-DeJoe

I just got back from an 11 day trip to Mexico. I left the country with a passport, goggles, one change of clothes, a knife, flashlight, and $50 my brother gave me when he dropped me off at the airport.

My intention was to try survival camping for the whole eleven days—as in find my own food and water while making shelter on a secluded beach somewhere. (Above is a distant picture of me gathering firewood just before the sun went down.)

To be honest, I’ve been thinking about what to write about this experience for awhile. My own internal lie detector kept shutting down the superficial wannabe profound thoughts that were coming up for topics.

The truth is, I didn’t last 11 days. I barely lasted 48 hours. Yeah, there were physical challenges like finding drinking water and food, but the biggest challenge is your own thoughts and psychology when it’s dark, when there’s no one around, you can’t sleep, there’s nothing to do, you’re thirsty, hungry, and you’re incredibly lonely.

At about 7 o’clock in the evening, it becomes very dark. And when you’re trying to sleep in a 20 yard space between the ocean and the jungle with no one around, your thoughts become racy and all over the place. You have a thousand thoughts at once but your mind is still empty because none stick. This is hell and difficult to explain. Occasionally, however, some of your thoughts seem focused and they arrive at crystal clear personal maxims like what and who matters to you and what type of person you’d like to be.

I kept a journal that I could barely see and wrote down every thought that came to mind. Living this experience even for a short time was one of the best and worst things I’ve ever done.

Feeling painfully alone and helpless between some of the loudest waves crashing and the weirdest sounds coming from the jungle puts your mind in a foreign state. I kept trying to fall asleep but I had to sleep so close to the fire that I was being awakened by the heat.

At one point I heard what sounded like something drop and roll down the cliff. It was in front of me and I immediately put my flashlight in that direction. I saw two green eyes. I’m positive they were eyes because I did not blink or take the flashlight off them. They slowly faded to the right behind a tree then back into the jungle. It was the most scared I’ve ever been in my life—it seemed smart to run into the ocean with all my clothes on in the pitch black.

And yet, in what was one of the most beautiful moments of my life, I was sitting on a log in front of a fire with the ocean to my left, the jungle to my right and every single star in the sky as clear as day. I don’t think I have ever in my life sat still for that long just staring and appreciating something.

This is what I wrote:

I was inspired to write this entry partly because of the stars and the ocean. Sitting alone and scared with only a fire, you feel insignificant against these tremendous creations. I’ve heard so many times people mention this feeling of insignificance and being small or a spec of dust against these. I’ve always felt the same way. It never felt good to accept insignificance but it felt accurate. Tonight it feels accurate for another reason: compared with the stars and ocean you are a spec of dust. That’s okay. Their beauty is explained in light years and in fathoms. They’re here to keep us humble and to awe us, but they are not here for comparison. They’re here to remind us that we can be significant to others and to make others feel significant. There are no shortages of opportunities every day. Being painfully alone right now, all I can think about is how lucky I am to have the family and the friends that I have. It also feels like I never need to prove anything to any of them.

One of the ideas that came to my mind at this time and from this entry was this concept of a “utility margin.” In any situation you are in, you possess some thing, whether material or immaterial, that you can give to someone else who will get more utility, value, and/or appreciation out of it than you are getting from it right now. The idea is that while you possess it, it is not worth as much as it could be to someone else.

For example, with immaterial possessions, right this instant, I can go to the grocery store and smile at the cashier and ask her how her day is going. I also don’t have to. But if I don’t, for no good reason, I just missed a chance to make the world a better place and someone’s day better.

For material posessions; there’s something in your posession at this moment that someone else would really love to have. You may even love to have it yourself—it’s probably why you have it in the first place. But give it away. Give it to them anyway and make the world a better place. You don’t have to say anything other than, “I want you to have this. I think you’d get more out of it than I am right now.” Seeing the elation on their face is one of the best feelings in the world. Try it—at least once. Tell me about it.

At night on the beach, I kept coming back to these thoughts of whether or not I was doing this challenge for myself or because I wanted people to talk about me. It feels like the things I do and don’t tell people about are the things I really want to do. These things are what define me because I am consistently that person. When I talk about things before I do them, it’s because I want recognition from them. And our days are too short to waste simply seeking recognition from others.

I wasn’t having any fun by myself on the beach because I was alone. I could have stayed, but it wasn’t worth it to me. I was craving human interaction again. I decided to walk into town and try to enjoy the remaining days I was there (and so I didn’t have to worry about jaguars).

I’m so glad I did. After a couple days in a surf town where no one has cell phones, I realized that meeting up with new people I had met relied on having to be somewhere at a certain time because you said you would be there and you couldn’t text your way out of it. Reminding myself of how many times I’ve backed out of something this way and that every relationship requires being selfless to some extent.

This sounds terrible to say but during those days, I hated seeing English speaking people because I loved speaking Spanish to local people. They looked you in the eyes, held a conversation with you, and smiled because they didn’t know any better or haven’t just been on a zombie walk staring at their phones.

There are many vivid memories I will have from this trip but nothing was more vivid than a conversation I had at a coffee shop. One of my favorite people I’ve ever met in my life was a 38 year old cop from Madrid named Gaston. He was vacationing for a month and staying at the hostel my friend was at. This particular month included his mother’s birthday. He mentioned to me a couple days earlier that his father died 5 years ago and they didn’t get along but he was glad they had patched the relationship when he got sick. They both agreed it was silly that it had gone this long.

I did not know his mother had died as well just last year. He brought it up by saying, “Tomorrow is gonna be tough for me. It’s my mother’s birthday.”

And what he said to me next was something that made my trip feel worth while. If you ever get to speak with someone that has English as a second language, it’s captivating to listen to because they are very succinct and waste no words to convey what they are thinking.

“When you lose your mother, you lose the person in the whole world that loves you unconditionally. When she is gone, that is it. No one else loves you like that again for the rest of your life.”

I had difficulty not being emotional as I listened to him.

I’m lucky enough to have my mother still, but one day I won’t and I struggled to make sense of this situation for those that have lost their mothers and other loved ones that have shown unconditional love towards them. How do you balance or become whole again?

Unconditional love is the most scarce and immaterial resource there is. It’s not something you can ask for or work at. It’s not something you are guaranteed or have the right to. It’s only something that you can give and it’s the most coveted of all resources. And while seemingly impossible to fill a void or find balance from losing someone, you have the ability to love someone unconditionally as well as the ability to forgive, the ability to improve any situation or life at any time, and endless opportunities to do so.

We forget that we are just passing through this world so we put emphasis on possessions and status when all we have to leave behind is how we’ve made others feel.

We allow difficult decisions to become exponentially more difficult because we don’t focus on the components of the decision that matter. Make decisions about people and not things. Not even places over people. Sometimes we’re fortunate to find great people in great places but when we have the option to choose, always choose people over things. Things break. Places change. Your effect on people lasts forever.

And unconditional love is your greatest possession in the utility margin you can ever bring to another person.

***

You can contact Paul directly via email or follow him on Twitter.

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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Comments

  1. says

    I found all this so interesting. While I’ve never been tempted to live in the wilderness, I’ve often imagined leaving my responsibilities behind, and staying alone in a hotel for a few days. But I think I would end up feeling the same loneliness, I know a friend who did.
    What I loved most was this: “It feels like the things I do and don’t tell people about are the things I really want to do. These things are what define me because I am consistently that person.”. Good food for thought – I can definitely relate to that feeling, and now am thinking what does it mean for me – do I continue in what I do, change what I do, let people know what I do or …. Perhaps not change anything at all?
    Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts.

  2. says

    This article really moved me. I never thought about how it would be to be totally alone in a jungle – and the psychology that comes along with it. I think this is a beautiful article, and I’m glad you wrote it.
    Unconditional love is incredibly scarce and precious. Not only is it difficult to come by, sometimes it’s difficult to give to. I think that we’re constantly also distracted with so many other things we fail to see what’s important in life. Thanks for making me think about this and focus on what’s important in life.

  3. says

    As an introvert, I am used to living alone and feeling that I do not exist. Sometimes staying too long alone makes you indifferent with others but in the end you realize that even if you are just a spec of dust, you can never be truly alone. With you mere presence, you affect others indirectly. People often forget this. I enjoy reading this entry, it is a great reminder for most who are caught in disconnect.

  4. Kathy Ericksen says

    Enjoyed reading this and the heart behind it, relationships are important and so many times we put other things first. Thanks as always for sharing.

  5. Mike Rizza says

    Gaston’s comment will be a strong motivator for me to prove him wrong. As a person of faith, I believe God loves me unconditionally and I am called to love others. But Gaston’s comment makes this more concrete. I must love others like they lost their mother and no one else will so that they know God loves them too. I will be smiling at more cashiers in the future. Thanks for sharing about your trip and getting out of the jungle without being eaten by a jaguar!

  6. Patrick says

    Paul, thank you for sharing your beautiful and inspirational experience.
    I have to challenge you on one aspect however . I have a small house in Mexico a couple hours south of Sayulita that can only be accessed by water. There are many places there that I can go to enjoy the benefits of solitude and natural beauty while living a simple lifestyle . There are plenty of people who have mobile phones there … They are ubiquitous in Mexico . Your statement that “no one has cel phones” in Sayulita is a just a bit romanticized. Sayulita became very popular with Americans after a writer for the NYT wrote a book about expat life there.
    There are lovely places in that region that remain untouched by tourism or development . There is a waterfall that I hike to where I can spend hours in contemplative solitude without seeing another person, for example .
    Thank you for sharing your story.

  7. says

    This is amazing… We were just in Sayulita a few months ago, but of course, we were not roughing it at all. People think our trip with just one backpack each is roughing it. I guess we are in the middle of two extremes. I know that the mental toughness required to be alone in the wilderness is something that I do not have. I do have the mental endurance to travel for a year on $1000 a month. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  8. says

    Hi Paul,

    This is a beautiful post. I’m glad you had an opportunity to connect deeply with another person and remember what matters most; love and people, connecting and helping. blessings, Brad

  9. Toni says

    Thank you for sharing. This is a wonderful and almost religious experience. I am with Mike, in that we know God loves us unconditionally. I also love What Gaston said about losing your mother, because I lost my mother and I believe his statement is quite profound. I am amazed you lasted 48 hours, I would not have lasted 3 hours.
    Thanks and blessings

  10. Lea says

    Thank you for sharing you’re experience. I understand the feeling when someone who loves you unconditionally passes away. I had that feeling when my Grandmother (who was a mother to me) passed away and again when my Dad passed away. What helped me (and may not make sense to others) is to know that my Dad, and his Mom had gone through these same feelings in their life too. Plus love never dies, it’s eternal. That helped me.

  11. says

    Thank you for sharing.
    The furnace is not working and it makes me impatient since no one seems to want to come and fix it (it’s Sunday)!
    It is Canadian winter here.
    I am cold.
    But all we be well soon.
    And your post reminds me that I should not let my impatience travel to my kids.
    They are what is important. People first, then things. You are right.

  12. Annie says

    Wow…I am in tears right now because of Gaston’s story. That’s how I felt when my father died over 7 years ago. My mom always said we were like “two peas in a pod,” and his death was the most painful experience of my life. How do you become whole again?…you don’t, but you learn to accept that and rejoice in the good times and love you shared with that person. That’s what helps me. My dad left me many great memories that no one can take away from me. I’m glad I was given the chance to know and love him and his death made me realize how important it is to enjoy this life and others in it while you can.

    • Marya says

      “When you lose your mother, you lose the person in the whole world that loves you unconditionally. When she is gone, that is it. No one else loves you like that again for the rest of your life.” You are absolutely right.

  13. Sebastian says

    I’ve never enjoyed an article on Becoming Minimalist this much. Seriously. Almost made me tear up.
    I think I’m going to watch Into The Wild again :-)

  14. CathyC says

    Thank you so much for this article. You wrote my heart. I have read it multiple times and shared it with others. Your comments about unconditional love are spot on.

  15. jackie says

    I’m happy for you that you learned this lesson with clarity about relationships and unconditional love. I you are a young person, try parenting and all the commitments it entails if you really want the full life experience… (I’m a Mom but believe Dads also love selflessly). Do it with the same clarity and commit to loving your spouse and offspring with as close to unconditional love as you can muster. The nuclear family is something incredibly special and powerful. However, even those we commit to love will let us down (and we, them) since we’re all human. Developing one’s spiritual dimension allows us to forgive others and ourselves for our shortcomings in a way that going that road alone doesn’t. People are physical, mental, psycho-social, spiritual beings and they need to tend all dimensions. Many ills in our post-modern society are attempts to fill the void left when people deny or try to fill the spiritual void with something other than a relationship with one’s maker. Do the work to discover your spiritual self and enjoy the journey. You’ll know you’re on the right track when you experience “the fruit of the Spirit which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians, 5:22),

  16. says

    Hi Paul,

    Great post. I went on an unsupported trek in Mongolia, and despite being with a friend, felt very alone in that environment. The quote about unconditional love inspired me to send a message to my Mother telling how how fantastic she is!

  17. Rich says

    Thanks for the great lesson. I’ve made it a routine to do a solo wilderness trek for a few days once a year to decompress and reconnect with the natural world. This does wonders for me, but most people don’t understand it (I guess I can’t blame them really). As odd as it may sound, I feel truly safe and secure on these trips and enjoy having no human contact whatsoever. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine this as a permanent state. I may look forward to the trek for months in advance, but I also really enjoy getting back with my family once I’m done. Your post has deepened my understanding on the need for human contact and how unconditional love plays a role in how strong our human connections are! Kudos…

  18. says

    Absolutely impressive and inspiring read! And already these two sentences show how Gaston must be one of the most captivating characters you met. I mean these words are darn brilliant!! I think we are constantly surrounded by people, but we seldom let them speak or properly listen…
    Thanks again for this touching insight and all the best!

  19. liz says

    My mother doesn’t love me unconditionally. If I do things she doesnt like, oh boy, she becomes a venomous viper. Tries to hurt me. But then she loves me again. And I love her again, in our own ways. Still I understand were the comment comes from. Enjoyed the article.

  20. says

    The part about mother made me tear up too… My own mother left me and my two brothers when I was two, but I think the Lord gave my Dad a huge dose of that unconditional love. He raised us and gave us what was good for us. I dread loosing him one day because I will feel like that. The person who loves me the most in the world and unconditionally will be gone. I feel scared of the world when I think of him being gone. So thankful that he is strong and healthy, short, and still about to take down three grown men at once;) I love him to pieces!

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