I am going to tell you a little story. Once upon a time, when I was fourteen and thought I was fat and clumsy (youth is totally wasted on the young), I found myself participating in an experiential leadership group. We called the group simply, Ropes. In Ropes, a group of ragtag teenagers, all learning to cope with depression, eating disorders, self-harm, drug addiction, and the like (depression- waves hand) were learning to work with others and building our self-esteem by working through a series of physical obstacles and games.
I was bad at all of them. Seriously. ALL. Of. Them. If we had to climb a rope, I fell before I reached the top. Walk up a 45-degree phone pole? I slid off. Get the group over an 8-foot wall? They just gave up and threw me over. I was always the obstacle. Well…me and one other awkward, very big boy. As the group worked through the planning phase of each challenge, they made plans for how to handle me and the big boy. I wasn’t bad on purpose- I just didn’t have the upper arm strength or dexterity to keep up with my mostly male, athletic group-mates. I always gave my best effort, but I always felt I was letting the group down and I was sure they were all angry at me. I could feel their frustration every time I screwed up a challenge and I know the big boy felt it too.
One fine afternoon, we faced a seemingly simple (fun, even) challenge. Five tires hung from rope from an overhead support, dangling just a few feet above ground. Our challenge was to get the entire group from one platform, across all five tires, to the other platform, without touching the ground. We could only go forward, not backward. And, we had to get the baby across. The baby was a heavy chunk of an old telephone pole. We made a plan. The big boy and I were not responsible for carrying the baby. Our team mates just hoped we could get ourselves across unassisted. The big boy went first and he made it. And then, it was my turn. The whole challenge rested squarely on my limp shoulders.
I stepped off the platform and grabbed for the rope. The tire swung. I immediately lost my balance. My foot slipped off the top of the tire. I nearly hit the dirt, but I managed to get my leg through the tire. Safe! I had one leg in the tire, one leg on top of the tire, and my head was swinging precariously just inches above ground. I didn’t have the strength to pull myself up, so I opted to just move horizontally to the next tire. I began to swing, working up momentum, until I could grab the next tire. I was able to grab the rope, but I was unable to pull myself up with one hand. I hung on, still swinging, and got one leg worked into tire number two. So there I was, one leg through each tire, one hand on each rope, butt swinging low, threatening to touch the ground and end the game.
Now, I’m not a quitter. This situation seemed impossible and it was certainly awkward, but I wasn’t giving up. No-ho-hooo. I was not about to quit while I was ahead and walk away with my dignity. Uh-uh. That’s what reasonable people might do. No, Siree. I am a determined soul.
I kept swinging, jerking my weight from side to side until I worked up enough momentum to pull my leg from the first tire and swing wildly toward tire number three. Everyone gasped and screeched as I flailed one leg and one arm inches above the dirt and landed myself in the same position between tires two and three. Swinging, sweating, and grunting in pain, I managed to repeat the same steps to get myself hung spread-eagle between tires three and four.
I was losing steam. I was sure my arms were stretching and my shoulders threatened to dislodge from their joints. I looked up at the platform ahead and a harsh reality washed over me. I realized that even if I could swing this one more time and get myself into tire number five, there was no way I was going to be able to get onto that platform at the end. I hadn’t been able to pull myself up yet and I just kept swinging side to side, making no upward progress. No matter how much effort I gave, I simply could not achieve the goal.
It was time to let go. I had given this challenge everything I had and it was just more than I could handle. As I hung there from those two tires, butt hung low, head hung back, hair dragging in the dirt, I prepared for the fall. I knew I would hit the ground with a thud when I let go and I knew it would hurt. But, I also knew that when I let go, the other members of my group would lose the challenge and they would be angry with me. I knew that would hurt much worse, so I prepared myself for the emotional pain as much as I did for the physical fall.
I let go. I hit the ground with a thud. I waited for the worst, but it didn’t come. Every member of the group rushed over to me to ask if I was ok. They cheered and clapped. They said they would have never hung on as long as I did and they couldn’t believe I had pushed myself so hard. I was stunned. Who knew that others could see the strength inside of me, that I couldn’t see myself? I learned in that moment, that I was stronger than I thought I was. I also learned that I had support in places I least expected it. My pride wasn’t hurt nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I was fine, empowered even. My group mates didn’t shun me. They supported me. I lived to get back up and face a new challenge the next day.
It was twenty-six years ago that I found myself dangling from those tires, hanging from a rope and losing my grip, but the memory is clear and fresh. It has become a metaphor for my life. Most days, I am swinging from a tire, holding onto a rope. Some days I am on top of the tire, face to the breeze, enjoying the beautiful sunshine. Some days I am stretched between two tires, butt dragging, sweat dripping, in great pain and anguish, losing my grip. Every now and then, I have to just let go and take the fall. But always, I live to see another day and face a new challenge.
What's the point of this story, you ask? Bear with me. I have a few. First, you need to find your people and build a good support network. You will find yourself swinging from the end of your rope sometimes and occasionally you will lose your grip. Surround yourself with people who know your strengths and who will cheer you on when you’re swinging low and pick you up when you hit the ground with a thud. Yes, you will probably look like a crazy person in an awkward position and you might even bump your butt on the ground a few times, but that’s okay. Your people will love you anyway.
Second, know when to let go. When you’re in a treacherous situation, you may need to just let go. For the love of dignity, when you find yourself barely hanging on, looking like a fool, just let it go. Some things are worth hanging onto and fighting for. Some are not. Learn how to tell the difference. If it's time to let go, suck it up and let go of that rope. Then dust yourself off and move on to the next challenge. Don't worry. Life is full of them. There will be plenty more.