Monday, June 9, 2014

What If What Doesn't Kill You Doesn't Make You Stronger?

About a year ago, I was e-mailing with a friend/mentor and talking about my future career. How maybe I just needed to settle for something/anything even if the job sucked the life out of me. And he swiftly responded, "You know how they say 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger?' I think that's bullshit."

He continued: "It might make us stronger, so long as everything comes out all right, because you climbed the mountain and got stronger in the process.  But what doesn't break us can also weaken us, make us cynical or fearful.  What doesn't break us can also make us bitter, confused, angry. And the phrase never mentions what happens if we do break. Trauma isn't to be trifled with, as you well know. And years of a job that drains, no matter how important, no matter how good you are, comes at a price."

His words challenged many of the beliefs I'd held about hard work and perseverance. About how to be successful. About how all the pain will be worth it. About the things we say/do to justify this pain: "This will make me stronger. This will make me stronger. Push. No. Matter. What."

Isn't there some middle ground between a military bootcamp AND eating Cheetos on the couch. Surely, there's somewhere that we can be successful in our goals and respectful of our limits.

Yesterday, Jeremy and I went rock climbing with a couple of friends here in Korea. We hopped on a bus bound for Gaeryeongsan National Park and started our hike to the slab where we'd be climbing. What was supposed to be short little mile, turned into a quite vertical crawl up and over boulders and through thick forest. Eventually, we arrived at our spot, completely isolated from any other climbers or hikers. Perfect. I've been climbing off and on since I was thirteen, so I'm fairly familiar with the drill: harness, helmet, tie the knots, get a belayer, double-check for safety, climb.

However, until this point, I had never lead a climb. This means that instead of safely setting up the route from the top and dropping the ropes down to the climber and belayer, the climber free climbs to each anchor spaced roughly 10 feet apart and that point becomes her/his next fall point. This means that if you fall right before you were about to reach the next anchor, you could be falling 20+ feet.

And this is exactly what happened to me. I had set my last anchor below me and was struggling to reach the next one. I felt the panic rising as I realized I was about to fall. I lost my footing and the next thing I remember is falling while simultaneously clinging to the rock with my fingers, arms, and legs trying desperately to shorten my fall, to catch a handhold on the jagged rock sliding past me. But at some point, I just curled inward trying to protect my head and face, waiting for the next anchor to catch me.




What probably lasted probably about three seconds, felt like thirty. So, now I am just hanging silently like a rag doll from this rope, with my poor husband on the other end gently asking, "Bo, are you all right?" I just swayed there for a moment trying to catch my breath. And if you've ever felt defeat, may it be a basketball championship or a bad review from your boss, it usually looks exactly like this:
hanging by a thread, weak and bloody.

And I knew exactly what I needed to do next. I needed to come down.

Not up.
Not onward.
Not "suck-it-up and keep going."
Not "what will your friends think of you for giving up?".
No "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
Just, no.

I needed to come down. To stand on the ground. To assure myself that that moment was over. Now--and forever--in the past. To assess the damage and just breathe for a bit.

Because even though I was physically capable of jumping back in the saddle and giving it another go (no broken bones) this was not a situation that required it. This was not a time to prove anything. Courage is not just grand acts of valor, but small moments of bravery. And all the courage left in me knew to listen to the Truth that was saying: "Dear Child, that took a lot of bravery to even attempt. I'm proud of you. And wowzy, that was quite the fall. Let's just take a moment." (I like that my inner Truth uses words like "wowzy." But it's okay if yours doesn't.)

After sitting out for awhile and just watching, I decided it would be a good idea for me to climb again. Just to get the jitters out. To avoid vilifying the rock. To make peace. But not to lead climb. No, just a basic climb. With an attachment point above instead of below. Where the most I could possibly fall would be inches instead of feet. Baby steps, folks. That felt like a good compromise. A way of saying, "Yup, that was terrifying, but I like climbing. And I need to remember what I like about climbing."

So I did. It felt right to me and the view from the top was worth it.

And what feels right to me, probably feels different to you. And that's fine. Because try as we might, the world doesn't only come in black-and-white. And neither does success. We don't have to choose  between ONLY achievement OR laziness. It's not either/or. Ninety-percent of the time it's and/both.

The point is not to STOP pushing ourselves. 
The point is to push ourselves with INTENTION

Set boundaries.
Think about how far you're willing to go.
Is it worth it?
Are you doing this for you or to impress someone else?
Can you let go of what you "should" do?
Can you be a little gentler with yourself in some areas?
Can you be a little harder on yourself in others?
It's up to you and no one else.

I think we like to say, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" because we really ache to feel that all of this pain is worth it. That--at the end of the day--it all makes sense somehow. And, thank goodness, sometimes the pain does feel worth it, but other times it doesn't. You and I, we are so damn resistant to discomfort. We can't bear to think that sometimes, bad stuff just happens and we just have to figure out what to do next whether or not there's a lesson to be learned. And in those moments we just have to be kind with ourselves and do the next right thing.

Yesterday, my next right thing meant doing another climb.

Today, my next right thing means letting this go and giving the shame gremlins a piece of my mind. After this, I will smear some coconut oil over my scrapes and sit very still.

What doesn't kill you might make you stronger (sometimes), but it's not a rule worth following. Let's not throw ourselves into rocks just for the sake of being a wee bit "stronger" in the eyes of others.
Don't stay in that nasty relationship.
Don't exist in a life that sucks your joy.
Don't wear the mask so people will think you've got it all together.

Sometimes what makes you stronger is letting go of everything.
And again.
And again.


KendraKay at said...

Sometimes, Heather, you just take my breath away with how much sense you make at my soul, feeling level. I love how you write. Thanks for spending the time and putting it out there for us to enjoy, grow, learn, heal.

Heather said...

You are just about the sweetest person ever. Thanks for understanding the time it takes to craft the best piece of writing. Glad you enjoy it.