The following post was actually an entry into an essay contest that Real Simple Magazine puts on every year. I was supposed to be notified by January 7th if I had won. Now that it's March 3rd, I think it's pretty safe to publish it here. The theme is similar to something I wrote last summer upon our return from Africa if it sounds familiar. This was the prompt:
If you could change one decision that you made in the past, what would it be? No, you can't go back in time, but here's the next best thing. Think of a decision that you regret—anything from a ridiculous choice of prom date to a serious lapse in judgment—and tell us what the mistake taught you about yourself.
I was four. I stood in my Minnie Mouse overalls, looking at the first major milestone I can remember: a bicycle with two wheels. I had already learned to roller-skate, but this was the true test of independence. I sucked my thumb in nervousness as I listened to my dad's instructions. He patiently explained the mechanics of starting and stopping and held on for the first few rides as I gained my sense of balance. Then, suddenly, I was on my own. I imagine he let go, unbeknownst to me, because he knew I would never have asked otherwise, but, nevertheless, I was riding solo. I slowed to a stop, moved past a brief moment of panic, then grinned proudly. I'd done it!
|Learning how to rollerskate in the Minnie Mouse overalls. They must have been my favorite outfit. What I'd like to know is whether or not my parents ever made me put a shirt on underneath them...|
My dad often tells this story as an illustration of what kind of child I was, but only recently have I come to realize that this small decision does more to explain the kind of adult I turned out to be. Nothing happened that should have caused me to want my training wheels back. I never fell off; I was never scraped or bruised. My hunch is, knowing the person I am today, that I realized I could fall. I could scrape my knee. I could bruise my hand. I could explode my front tire and fly into a fence. Irrational, yes. Enough to change my mind, no.
I have followed this logic throughout most of my life. You give me a situation, and I will think through all the possible consequences. I never had a hard time turning down adventures growing up because often the thought of getting into trouble or hurting myself was enough to give me no sadness in rejection. I can think of multiple occasions where I stayed home alone in my adolescence because the idea of risk made me sick to my stomach.
The great irony of my life came when I married my husband, a man who is my opposite in almost every way. He is a daring risk-taker by heart and fairly fearless in most situations. At the mention of adventure, you will see a bright twinkle in his eye, because he’s never one to pass up something even remotely exciting.
I knew early on that marrying Jake would eventually pull me out of my comfort zone.
That moment came when I was 25-years-old. I sat in the car on the way to church, nervously chewing away at my fingernails (a habit that, thankfully, replaced the thumb-sucking). Jake and I were discussing the prospect of taking a cross-cultural trip to a country with risk of danger. I was forming some foolproof arguments against the trip, but when our Pastor chose that Sunday to preach on the five excuses Moses used in the desert, I considered all my points moot. I agreed to go but kept my “risk calculator” out at all times.
This trip had the potential for more than just scrapes and bruises. Planes might crash, diseases might be contracted, and hostages might be taken. You name a completely irrational worst-case-scenario, and I had already reasoned through how I would deal with it. Suddenly, I was the four-year-old again, desperately wanting my training wheels back on. This time, though, my dad and his screwdriver weren’t going to solve the problem.
We embarked on our adventure in June, and my irrational fears were always near. They whispered in my ear as we walked down the street and crept up my neck in the middle of the night. They paralyzed me at times, and I found myself frustrated to be so mastered by them.
Then, I had a rather profound experience. I was riding in a car with the other women on our trip. We were coming back from an evening in the desert. It was dark, and the streets were lined with people. In the midst of the chaos of that night, our vehicle started acting up. Each time we stopped, the car would die. I began to pray fervently that our car would work long enough to get us home. It didn’t, and as we rolled to a stop on the side of the road, I was frustrated. It seemed such a simple prayer to answer, and here we sat, five women, alone, far away from any person who could help us.
That’s when our car was surrounded by local people. They practically swarmed us, and when I surveyed the scene, I realized they were smiling. Smiling. All they wanted to do was help us. They brought us into their home, served us tea, and just kept smiling until a car arrived to take us home. It was such a lovely picture of hospitality and an answer to prayer that I wasn’t expecting. I saw in that moment what a blessing our broken down car had been because it allowed me to see the great kindness of the people and shattered the misconceptions I had projected through my own fears.
I learned during the rest of our time overseas that the benefits of such an experience far outweighed any potential risk. Sure, there was a possibility for something to go wrong, but had I listened to that inner fear, I would have missed out on all the beautiful things the country had to offer—which, in my experience, were the people.
I’ve been thinking about my four-year-old self lately—wishing I could go back in time and convince her that it wasn’t worth putting the training wheels back on. That a scraped knee or even an exploded tire is only a big deal because it’s during those times that we are shaped and molded and bettered as people.
I’m thankful to have learned from that small childhood moment; to have realized that all the hundreds of possible risks aren’t worth missing out on the one experience at hand—that situations, once you’re in them, are never really as scary as you think.
Four-year-old me may always linger, sucking her thumb in the in depths of my being and reminding me of all there is to be afraid of in life, but the screwdriver and the training wheels are nowhere to be found. I see now that it’s not worth it.