In the northwest corner of Lake Superior looms the largest freshwater island in the world. It is a bastion of beauty and isolation. More people visit Yosemite in a weekend than set foot on Isle Royale National Park in an entire season. It is only accessible by a long ferry ride. Grey wolves still roam wildly across its land in search of moose wandering outside of the herd. The shorelines resemble a Maine coast with its many basins, coves, harbors, and bays all with their own unique allure. Upon arriving at each one, these inlets beg the traveler to stop for awhile and enjoy their idyllic splendor. They exude a quiet harmony that runs deeply and encourages a sense of reflection and tranquility. Far away from the maddening crowd, they are a respite that remains long after one has left the island for good.
In our daily lives, these inlets are often elusive. We are bombarded with frequent stressors that often make us forget they exist. Therefore, we often go in search of hobbies or activities that will take us away from the constant noise. For men especially, we are in need of outlets so that we can “blow off steam” or refocus our attention on something more relaxing and controlled than our unpredictable lives. It is a necessary thing. Those who do not have regular, healthy stress relievers often resort to habits that damage their mind, body, relationships, or pocketbooks. Outlets are also the point where electricity can flow and ideas and passions may be born. The world has seemed to catch on to this. Everywhere you look there is a new club available and new activity marketed.
Here is where outlets diverge, though. Those outlets that seek to improve and renew self, to enkindle passion, and to encourage internal growth find themselves worthy of retaining. Those that seek purely to serve as a catharsis may beg otherwise. For a long time, there has been a prevailing adage that cathartic actions, such as getting a beer when tempers flare, diving into a video fighting game, or punching away at a bag in the basement, were necessary to relieve anger so it didn’t explode. But when it came time to research this accepted belief, the opposite was actually found in study after study. Those who engaged in regular cathartic behaviors were more, not less, likely to have difficulty managing their emotions and controlling their damaging impulses. The more they sought to just release and forget about the anger, the more likely that the anger was to take over in the days that followed. Simply put, it appears that the idea of catharsis is a lie.
Which brings us back to the quiet inlets in the middle of Lake Superior. Outlets, by definition, are connections to the world toward which we can direct our energy. When we plug into one, we are transported to different experiences. Like the cord from our television, one form of energy is transmitted to another venue. But if the outlet ends there, little happens to transform a person. Winston Churchill understood this. During his reign as the Prime Minister of England, he wrote a book called Painting as a Pastime. In this book, he described his feelings that rest and release alone were not enough to provide daily renewal. He felt that one must exercise his creativity regularly, and seek to constantly develop new interests and passions. Painting was his. And so in the midst of one of the most tumultuous periods of the modern world, Churchill made sure that he never went too long without touching the brush to the canvas. Painting was more than just an outlet. It became an inlet of his soul.
When it comes down to it, outlets are best when the energy we put into them is returned, even exponentially at times. When outlets serve as a conduit of inner strength, of deep growth and reflection, and complete solitude, they suddenly transform into a source that can sustain us even through trying times. At this point, they cease to be an outlet. An inlet begins to emerge. Outlets and inlets both take energy. Only inlets give it back when the activity is done. Even when the waters in the open sea are rough and unforgiving, inlets provide a protected, even hidden, sanctuary that often runs deeper than most will ever know. At their best, when we are willing to share those inlets with our closest companions, they serve to unite us in a common goal. The goal is to improve ourselves and each other, and to teach our children the importance of seeking out inlets as they grow older.
Most truly great people have inlets. Many of these are never known except by a select few. We often assume that greatness, whether of service or leadership, is uniquely granted on the basis of talent or privilege. Often we are wrong. Greatness frequently comes through the process of daily renewal by the means of inner harbors. In our daily lives, we are in as much need of inlets as anyone else. They come in an infinite variety. They can be carpentry or volunteering or embroidery or birding or music or running or dancing or meditating. They are available to the rich and poor, lonely or outgoing, old and young. But without initial and ongoing effort, inlets fall short of truly becoming anything noteworthy at all. They just become a noisy TV that replays the same old drama and frivolity night after night.
So how do you know if something is an outlet or an inlet? The same activity can be an inlet for one and an outlet for another. Ask yourself a few simple questions. What happens to me after I pull the plug? Does it sustain me throughout the day or week, or does the electricity simply stop flowing until the next time I get my fix? Does it encourage me to reflect, and grow, and be healthy? Or does it simply function to remove me from reality, or even worse, lead me to a path of my own demise? Does it increase the gratitude I feel, or does it create detachment or even disdain, especially for others close to me? Does it help me embrace my struggles, or does it leave me motionless, or even running, from stress in my life? Answers to the former suggest an inlet, to the latter an outlet. All meaningless outlets are not bad. All of us need silliness and detachment at times. It’s just that when it comes to encouraging our own growth so that we can grow the next generation, it seems we need to daily seek out the quiet, refreshing waters of that inner cove.