Thursday, January 10, 2013

On personal limitations

I remember the exact conversation I had when I thoroughly learned my limits. I'd say I remember the exact day, but I am terrible with dates. It was in March of 1992 [CRAP I MEAN 2002] though.

I was planning a solo hiking trip to the Pyrenees mountain range between Spain and France for my 30th birthday, and was nervous about doing it in spring when there might still be snow. I knew my friend Trevor had traveled there, going from mountain house to mountain house sharing wine with whoever he found there. I hit him up for information, and the conversation ended up making me feel like utter crap. His confident blasé attitude about life, his belief that one could simply go with whatever came along, started making me jittery and shivery with shame at myself for fearing negative possibilities.

Me: What if it snows?
Trev: Then go skiing!

Me: What if the mountain house I reach is full?
T: Sleep on the floor!

Me: What if it's really cold? I don't know if I can carry a heavy sub-zero sleeping bag up and down mountains.
T, raising an eyebrow: Stay at a hostel.

Me: I hate hostels, I'm too old for that...
T, frowning in slight bafflement: What are you doing?

Me: What?

He said, "You're coming back to each thing I say with all these reasons you can't do something. You're totally boxing yourself in. Wall wall wall," and held his hands up to show a cube. A cube he felt I had trapped myself in.

I felt like complete shit. I thought, "He's right. I trap myself with negative thinking and make myself jittery. I could be so much more kickass. Why am I so jittery?"

I pondered it all day and felt like shit all day. Then sometime late at night it hit me:
I'm not Trevor.
And that's ok.

I have some friends, and read about many others, who stride forward through life nigh-fearlessly like the prow of a ship cutting through the fierce and cold Atlantic waves. I love them and often think, "What would Trevor do? What would Greg do? What would that guy who cut off his own arm in the desert do?"

It's heartening and inspiring to know there are people out there like that, and sometimes I can emulate it a little when I stop and think "What would Trev/Greg/Ben Franklin/Maira Kalman do?" But I cannot remake myself into someone like them.

I have limits. Back then, like many super confident people, Trevor just couldn't imagine having some tiny anxiety get out of proportion and hunch your shoulders for no reason. It simply didn't HAPPEN to him! He is constitutionally different from me. Hear that? Constitutionally different. If you're saying No, that's not true, anyone can become unstoppably confident, then you are constitutionally different from me. That is wonderful for you, I am truly happy for you and glad that people like you exist in the world, to push back at the world and carve a path for the rest of us! I am grateful for your existence. But truly—people are made differently.

I have limits and I'm not going to kill myself trying to remake myself. I'll do what I can and instead think of Frida Kahlo lying in bed painting, and Charles Darwin who had so much pain later in life that he could only write for 3 hours a day. I will accept my limitations and do what I can. I will NOT compare myself to those who are from their spine out to their skin different from me. So, take THAT guilt, IN YO' FACE.

The next day I called up my brother and asked if he wanted to go to the Pyrenees with me. We celebrated my 30th birthday on the top of a mountain with some bread and cheese and wine. He got altitude sickness. I went on to do many other solo hikes (which I'd done before), though only in North America in clement weather. I doubt I'll ever solo hike in another continent. And that, my friends, causes me no guilt whatsoever.

Hilarious coda? A few years later Trevor had his own  30th birthday up at a farm in summertime, and a bunch of us stayed for the weekend. There were bonfires and beer at 11 in the morning, and aerobeds that went fssssst in the middle of the night so that we ended up on the floor. And there was a pond in a field with lots of underwater grasses and soft mud, and a dark center where who knows what lurked. I've never had much fear of water or leeches, so I put my beer down and in my shirt and shorts waded in and swam about. The bottom was squishy but further out was perfectly fine.

Trevor laughed, some other guy thought I was crazy (why? what in heck could happen to me?). And at dinner that night Trevor said, "You know, whenever I think of someone adventurous you're the first person I think of."

Say what?? Of course he had no recollection of the conversation a few years before, but still. I was shocked. People get so overwhelmed at the thought of girls hiking alone or diving into a pond alone, they get more impressed than I think they should.

And then it hit me—when it comes to solo hiking under circumstances I'm fairly familiar with (English-speaking people, warm weather), I don't get jittery. I am constitutionally fine with solo hiking. Just the way I'm built.

If you feel crappy that you don't have the courage to solo hike, if you feel like I'm cooler than you, don't. Do you know how many things I can't bring myself to do? Like make a dentist appointment? Keep up an exercise routine? Read a history book? Get pregnant and have a baby with joy rather than terrible soul-burning feelings of ambiguity "maybe I shouldn't have done this"? Then you overwhelm me.

Be fine with fear. Be fine with having an anxiety disorder. Brush off people who are so constitutionally confident that they make you feel like crap. Be awesome within your limits, because you are awesome.

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