What Trace Do You Leave?

I’ve been doing a lot of exploring in nature this season: hiking mountains, paddling down rivers, swimming in waterfalls, etc. One of the main tenants of being a decent steward of the outdoors is a concept called Leave No Trace, or LNT, for short. I learned all the principles and rules of LNT when I was quite young. I won’t go into detail about them all, but the main idea is to leave a place the way you found it, or rather, the way it would have looked if humans weren’t romping around, as best as you possibly can. This means not leaving any items behind, as well as not taking any items with you, and allowing the existing environment to do it’s thing without disturbances as much as possible.

While practicing leave no trace this summer, I’ve been thinking about the relevance of this concept beyond spending time in nature, specifically when it comes to human relationships. Now, I know it is impossible not to leave a trace on another, because that is just the nature of being a person. I also realize that some relationships, professions, and systems that exist in our society are specifically designed to leave a trace, and many of them are very necessary to the overall wellness and efficiency of a community. However, I’ve noticed that when I allow myself to simply enjoy the company of others, much as I would enjoy a mountainous landscape, without dumping my baggage onto them (unless they are open and willing to take it on), without stealing their energy, and without actively trying to change anything about them, I tend to have a more peaceful experience, and they do too!

It sort of reminds me of the concept of “other conversational responses” in Nonviolent Communication. These are responses that are anything other than empathy, and they may or may not foster connection with another, depending on a variety of factors. For example, giving advice is an other conversational response. Through the lens of LNT, giving advice would be leaving something behind while also actively trying to change the environment. In other words, a no-no. While advice can be connecting sometimes, it does leave a trace, and not always the kind of trace that was intended. I think in most cases in which people give advice, they are doing it out of kindness and a need for growth, efficiency or maybe learning. However, a person that did not consent to receiving advice might interpret it as a judgment on the way they function, or even a judgment on their character. They may assume the advice-giver thinks they are flawed, and therefore must be told how to be better, because their existing way of operating isn’t good enough. This leaves a very different trace. Maybe it’s resentment, frustration, anger. Or maybe it is self-doubt, lack of confidence, self-consciousness, and self-blame/deprecation.

I’m not sure that a constant employment of LNT is necessarily the way to go when it comes to all human interaction. Of course there will be times in which “leaving a trace” in some form is simply unavoidable or even fruitful – like parenting a child, teaching a student, mentoring a protégé, or a therapist-client relationship – but I do like having a general mindfulness about it. When I stop and simply pay attention to the ways in which I am interfering with another person’s natural environment (internal or external), it allows me to be very intentional about what I do or say with them. Mindfulness and intentionality are ongoing life goals of mine. I already have a rulebook for intentionality around respecting the natural world. While there isn’t such a clear-cut and simple way to translate that to human interactions, I’ve found that some of the same principles can certainly apply from time to time.