“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” –Eleanor Roosevelt
Today, my younger son did something I had never dreamed imaginable. He, without provocation from me or anyone else, volunteered to jump off the first tower of the platform diving boards at our community pool. Now, this may not seem like a big deal to many other parents of 9 year-olds who hold their breath or close their eyes as their children deftly take on new challenges. While I would never refer to him as cautious because he has a personality that is larger than life and he throws himself into the mix with his older brother and his friends, I would suggest that he is rather unadventurous. With just about everything in his life, he avoids taking on anything new. He will push the limits of anything that feels familiar to him but, rarely, does he willingly jump into unchartered waters. He sets defined limits on the risks he will take and handily manages to skirt through life avoiding the curves and finding a safe straightaway where he can drive really, really fast.
My son applies this principle to just about everything in his life and will explain to you, with conviction, why his logic makes sense and is appropriate. He refuses to try new foods (although he recently, surprisingly, agreed to add cheese to his burgers) and, when forced, twists up his face with disdain before his taste buds are even remotely engaged to register any form of reaction to the food barely touching his tongue. When we try to encourage him to take on a new activity, such as a sport other than the ones he has been playing for years (and feels relatively confident about), he politely says “no thank you, I’m good.” without even looking up from his handheld device.
This is not to say that he lives his life trapped inside a plastic bubble. He plays sports (and is fairly skilled at those he plays) and is quite the popular kid at school. He just comfortably sets his limits and sees no reason to reach beyond them. He’s sort of like a crotchety old man who is set in his ways and will not be provoked to change. I appreciate this about my son because, if I am being honest with myself, he is quite like I was at his age. Except, of course, he has a million times more self-confidence than I did and doesn’t struggle with his decision to disengage around certain things – he has his mind made up and wavers only when he sees a legitimate reason to budge. For me, my limits in life were self-imposed out of fear. I was always afraid that I was not capable of doing things so I avoided them rather than step out of my comfort zone. I refused to put myself into situations where I could not anticipate the outcome. Even as a young girl in elementary school, I understood that I was different from other kids because I was chubby and awkward and did not have much athletic prowess. Not only was it uncommon for girls in my school to play sports (and there were very limited options even if you wanted to), there was no one in my family encouraging me to do anything because it was not our culture. No one in my family played sports or was particularly active – even my brother skipped Little League because my parents were too involved in their own lives to pay attention to him and give him that opportunity. As a result, not only could I not turn a cart-wheel, I would never even dare try because the fear of failure was too overwhelming.
My son sees the world through a different lens. His body is bigger than most kids his age and he has a harder time running fast and certainly is nowhere near as agile as most of his buddies. But, this does not stop him. He will still stand in front of the basketball hoop and jump up high trying to out dunk his big brother. He believes he has the mad skills to do what it is he wants to do. He just picks his battles and eliminates those areas that seem too far out of his reach. While I was afraid and avoided humiliation and shame, his excuse is typically apathy and a bit of laziness. Fear may come into play for certain things but he is certainly not afraid to make a fool of himself and, when he is ready to take something on, motivated by some unknown driver, he just does it without worrying about what others might think. While I can relate to him on some level, I am truly in awe of him.
One of the greatest gifts of parenthood, for me, was the ability to see myself through a whole new lens. Once that child is placed in your arms and is now in your care, your ego begins to shrink as you recognize there is something so much bigger than yourself that matters in the world. Your needs are no longer primary and your fears often must be tossed aside to ensure that you can do whatever it is you need to do to love and protect this person that is now solely dependent on you for its care and safety. Their outcome is in your hands and they come first. For me, what this meant was that I could no longer indulge a lot of the anxiety I struggled with in my life. It also gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own fears and limitations as a kid and begin to both liberate myself from them while trying to encourage my own children to embrace life and take on new challenges and experiences. Amazingly, somewhere along the way a shift occurred for me. A very powerful and meaningful shift that allowed me to gain courage and confidence from my children in order to tackle some new avenues for myself. After I turned 40 and my children were now in elementary school and starting to become just a wee bit more independent, I saw some space in my life free up. I had already spent close to a decade focusing steadfastly on ensuring that my children were given the right foundation to feel good about themselves, had confidence and security and could make bold choices for themselves as the opportunities arose. I was determined to not have them live inside a bubble of fear that prevented them from believing in themselves, resulting in the paralysis that defined so much of my childhood. For me, growing up, there was no climbing trees, no jumping in lakes, no hiking up hills. I was afraid my body would not do what I needed it to do and that I would fail or get hurt, leaving me both physically and emotionally wounded. Instead, I opted out and, like my son, suggested “no thanks, I’m good.” But I really was not good. I was always running scared.
In less than a week I will be 46 years old. It is an overwhelming notion for me. Suddenly, I can imagine myself turning 50. I see myself as being as old as the parents of my friends growing up. My older son is becoming a teenager this year and my sweet younger boy is turning double digits. My life is half over and the first half is so distinctly branded by fear. Fear has ruled my life, crippled me, caused me to avoid, disengage, disconnect, run away, hide out, lock up, look away, and, worst of all, fail to live. Over the last few years I have noticed something happening in myself, probably as a result of my children giving me the space to fill with something new and my newfound confidence that comes with middle age. Nowadays, I am looking at challenges and risks and I’m intrigued. Where my life never involved adventure that included things like zip lines, hang gliding or kite boarding, these activities suddenly capture my attention. I no longer worry that I am too awkward or too fat or simply incapable and am now curious about pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone to see what lies on the other side. I am beginning to believe that my body, still chubby (and now way more jiggly), has strengths and capabilities that I have not dared to explore. Because I know that I can count on me and don’t need to rely upon others to always hold me up, I trust that my body will be there to do what I need it to do when I need it to do it. I believe that I have more strength that I ever dreamed possible.
Yesterday, on the 4th of July, one week before my 46th birthday, I tackled something I never imagined I could. I ran a 5K. This body pushed through incredible heat and humidity and crossed the finish line – dead last. I did not run every step of the way but I ran more than I walked and I never gave up. I was so far outside my comfort zone that I was afraid I would never find my way back. And, frankly, I might have just thrown away the map back home because nothing has felt as good as the moment my sweaty and exhausted body stepped across the finish line. For 45 years I have never competed in any athletic challenge for fear that I would lose or fail. For 45 years I shut out the idea that I could push myself beyond my limits and still live to see another day. Well, I survived and made it to today and feel great. Yesterday, as I passed all the locals sitting on their porches or gathered on the curb to cheer on the runners, I raised my arms and yelled “It’s my first time!” I was so proud and never once cared that I was the last one in the pack and was sure to be the last one to finish. As I looked at the race clock when I was crossing the finish line, I saw my time at a little over 47 minutes and felt immense pride. In my mind, I expected it to take an hour. In my mind, I expected my lungs to give out, forcing me to walk the whole way. In my mind, I feared humiliation as everyone saw my jiggly body that did not fit in with the other long and lean runners. But, in reality, none of it mattered. I ran the race, pushed myself to do the best that I could and I finished, feeling stronger and prouder and more determined than ever before. I was supported by friends in the most amazing way (that is surely another blog post about the power of the people who come into your life when they do) and felt exhilaration that, if bottled, would make me a very rich woman. And, I knew, for the first time, that I could do so much more than I ever dreamed possible.
Today, still high from yesterday’s accomplishments, I sat on the edge of the diving pool with my younger son as we watched the kids going off the tall towers. His older brother had just accomplished the feat of jumping off the first tower last week, which surprised me but I sort of expected that he eventually would once all his friends pressured him enough. I expected that my younger son, like me, would look at that tower and determine it was not worth the risk. It was not a required goal. Instead, he looked at me and asked me if I thought he should give it a try. That was a no brainer. I encouraged him to do it and he hesitated, suggesting that perhaps he would another day. Then, as the life guards called last call for the towers, he yelled across to his older brother and said” Will you go with me?” My older son enthusiastically nodded and prodded his brother just a little bit. They got on the long line which I feared would give my son enough time to turn around and rejoin me at the side of the pool but, instead, he hung in. He climbed the ladder, determined and, when he reached the top, I held my face in my hands, worried that he might get hurt or, worse, might chicken out and take the walk of shame back down the ladder. But not my son. He now had his mind made up and he took his little chubby body to the edge of the platform and, without hesitation, jumped and did the most glorious belly flop into the ice-cold pool. And, right then, my excitement and exhilaration topped the feeling I felt when my feet crossed the 5K finish. I was proud and thrilled because I knew that my son, at the ripe old age of 9, was overcoming his own fears – way ahead of schedule.