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Pastor/Runner: Feel the Nature Scratching You

I’ll be attending no Lutheran sermon this morning, but I don’t mind sharing one line from Faroe Islands Lutheran pastor and trail runner Sverri Steinholm:

To feel the nature scratching you, it’s good, I think.

…and his trail running video, which, sure, was shot by marketers and a company trying to sell us shoes, but which nonetheless provides a fine Sunday meditation on Lutheran view of our place in the world:

To feel the nature, that it can take you, for me it is a good feeling what I am. I’m not that strong. It can blow me away [Pastor Sverri Steinholm, in Tim Kemple, “The Running Pastor,” 2019].


  1. Debbo 2019-08-25 21:20

    “To feel the nature scratching you, it’s good, I think.”

    Study after study has shown Rev. Steinholm’s instincts are true. Contact with nature, even a walk in a manicured city park, improves one’s mental health. A current fad that’s actually true, is called “forest bathing.” That refers to walking, sitting, meditating or simply being in a forest or woods and soaking it in to the best of one’s ability.

    The Pastor is also right about running. Physical exercise releases the same positive brain endorphins that many psychiatric medications do. I try to frequent the weight room in the senior center in Northfield. There is a sign on the wall that says “Exercise is Medicine.” It is!

    It’s so ironic that the areas of the USA with the easiest and most constant access to nature and physical exertion have the highest rates of suicide. Montana sits alone at the top, but Wyoming and the Dakotas are close behind.

    The article from Bloomberg I linked to below tells of the one psychiatrist in all of eastern Montana. We know how immense that area is. One psychiatrist, that’s all. That’s an important part of the problem, lack of care.

    Low rates of insurance reimbursement, when mental health providers fight with them long enough to get reimbursement at all, is another big obstacle to getting care.

    I think we’re all aware of an aspect of masculinity that is thoroughly toxic; that asking for help is unmanly. It’s so ingrained that some men actually suicide, rather than seek help.

    I know that economic stressors are very high and getting worse in those areas of the country. I also know that’s it’s possible to be in the midst of something without noticing. A highly stressed farmer can stand in the midst of an outstanding corn crop, but not notice the dark green colors, dried brown silks, drying shucks, softness of the soil underfoot, smell of the earth, yellow kernels, nearly black soil, small gray rocks, withered weeds, wind slicing through the sharp edges of the leaves.

    All he can see is debts, children, spouse, winter coming. All he can see is no way out, hopelessness. He goes to the pick up that always has a rifle in the gun rack.

    Every time we lose anyone to a suicide of despair, it’s a tragic loss.

  2. Debbo 2019-08-25 21:21

    Cory, thanks for this post. I enjoyed the video and listening to the rev’s thinking very much.

  3. Porter Lansing 2019-08-25 21:56

    Very well presented, Debbo. Suicide is highest in rural areas? Hmmm? It’s true that people in cities are happier. However, it’s not that cities make you happy, per se. It’s that inherently happy people move to cities and the unhappy souls stay in the country. Thus, suicide per capita is higher in rural areas. When I moved from ESD to a city 43 years ago, I did notice that I felt less stressed and more happy. Probably because of the positive attitude of the people I had moved closer to. It took a while to shake the bad mental habits of living in SD but it sure was worth it.

  4. Debbo 2019-08-25 22:34

    Porter, I wonder if there are any studies that make that statement?

    My observation after living out of SD in Minnesota and Washington state is that there is an underlying, low level, generalized depression and resentment in SD. I don’t know if that’s true of Sioux Falls because I never lived there, but I’ve lived in every area of SD from Hecla to Springfield, White to Spearfish and all over the midsection of the state in the top 9 largest towns, except SF, and so many small towns. (That’s what happens when I teach and preach.)

    The difference between citizens of Minnesota and Washington and those of SD was quickly noticeable. There was an optimism, a positive outlook, that SD was missing.

    The question of the article, and mine, is where does this difference come from? What is the cause? And how can we help those folks survive and then thrive?

    My dad always struggled with depression and at times it was severe. He did see a counselor briefly once or twice, but never stuck with it. What he wanted, and I think it’s a common misperception, is for the psychotherapist to fix the stressors he had been struggling with. Of course that was not within the toolchest of any counselor.

    What a good therapist does is help the client develop resilience in accepting facts and dealing with them through one’s strength and tools that actually are available. That’s really hard work, incredibly hard. My father wasn’t willing.

    When these rural states are so horribly short of practitioners and financial support, trying to afford therapy adds another level of stress and piles on hopelessness.

    Porter, I don’t think it’s as simple as urban people are just happier. It was true for me too that I needed to “shake the bad mental habits of living in SD.”

    I feel like this topic is very complex and vital for SD’s current wellbeing and future growth. If the SDGOP was really concerned about South Dakotans, they’d invest in this. I don’t really think the leadership gives a damn.

  5. Porter Lansing 2019-08-25 22:45
  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-08-26 12:38

    Debbo, thinking of that sign in Northfield, “Exercise is medicine”—could the pastor put a sign in the church office, or hallway, saying, “Exercise is prayer”?

    Indeed, how, when nature is so close to us, can our suicide rate be so high?

    But how close is nature, really, when it is squared and fenced off and turned mostly into food factory and when our movements are restricted mostly to a grid? How often do South Dakota kids really get out and play in wilderness?

  7. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-08-26 12:44

    Debbo mentions toxic masculinity. It’s interesting to consider Pastor Steinholm’s expression of masculinity. He runs 38 kilometers on steep volcanic mountain ridges in the wintry North Atlantic—that’s totally studly! But as he presents it in this video, his exercise isn’t about dominating or crushing anything or anyone or proving his personal awesomenimnity. He seats his masculinity, his humanness, in the awareness he gets from his runs in nature that he is not strong, that he can be blown away (literally! Imagine topping that ridge and running at an angle as an Atlantic gale tries to knock your feet out from under you!). He runs not to defeat weakness but to acknowledge it, accept it, remind himself of it daily.

    There’s something Lutheran there, right, Debbo?

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-08-26 12:49

    Debbo, your commentary about our deeply ingrained depression and resentment is very interesting, especially when you can say you experienced a clear difference in Minnesota and Washington. Without casting doubt on your sensitivity and intelligence, I do want to ask: is there any chance you were just projecting on your new neighbors your own relief at leaving what you felt was an oppressive environment and enjoying the liberation of a new community? (Your own explanation appears to pre-empt my question to a large degree: you went to many new communities in South Dakota and experienced the same gloom; it wasn’t until you went abroad from SD that you experienced that liberating sense of optimism.)

    Does the conversation you say we need about our culture happen in the Legislature, or in our schools, churches, media, and elsewhere? If a culture of pessimism exists, what Legislative response can address and remedy it?

    Yo’re asking our Legislature to talk about our feelings. Guys like Stace Nelson, Steven Haugaard, and Phil Jensen will ridicule that suggestion.

  9. Debbo 2019-08-26 21:08

    Cory asked, “is there any chance you were just projecting on your new neighbors your own relief ..?”

    Of course. However, I clearly recall my surprise at the difference in attitude and outlook. It wasn’t something I was looking for, but the change was surprising, unexpected and very noticeable. I hadn’t been out of SD to live before, so I naively thought Minnesotans would be about the same as what I was used to.

    Since I became aware of this *generalized attitude difference, I’ve tried to be more aware and help counteract it, especially when I was back in SD in the late ’90s – 00s.

    “That will never work here.
    We can’t do that.
    We’ve always done it this way.”
    And so on.

    *To be sure, it’s not universal to every South Dakotan.

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-08-27 22:35

    Thanks for checking yourself, Debbo. I figured a woman as introspective and self-aware as yourself would have done just that.

    Flight of fancy: maybe we could tackle that endemic depression and resentment by getting everyone in South Dakota to take up jogging, or biking, or power-walking. We don’t all have to run as hard or far as Pastor Steinholm… but maybe we all need more outdoor, sweating gospel.

    The CDC reported last year that the percentage of South Dakotans who meet the federal guidelines for physical activity is significantly lower than the national average and lower than in every adjoining state. Coincidence? Might we be noticeably more grim than our neighbors because fewer of us exercise… or do we not get out on the bike as much because we are depressed?

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