-A life lesson from me (chicken shit) that applies to us all

I used to be a gymnast.  I did back walkovers on the high beam, I did flyaways (back flip dismount) off the uneven bars.  I did front and back flips and aerials on the floor.  I let myself get strapped into a harness and launched off a teeterboard (giant human see saw) and managed to do a triple back flip.  All of this is especially ironic, because I was a total chicken.

Now how does a chicken do scary tricks like turn over backward on a balance beam? My excessively visual imagination would see pictures of my crash landing on my head or breaking both arms. I berated myself for not having confidence. After all, friends I remembered from childhood who seemed to know how to get everything I wanted - especially attention - were bold and confident. It seemed to be rewarded in the culture. Whereas people like me, who was (particularly back then) much more timid in nature . . . not only did I not get what I wanted sometimes, but I felt that that lack of bold confidence made me unlikeable. I was always - and still am - jealous of the naturally confident types. Things are so easy for someone when they are brimming with confidence, deserved or not. That has never been my strong suit.

While I hated being hesitant, I refused to just let that be the score. On one particular day, I was on the balance beam, trying to will myself to do a back walkover. You "simply" lean back and reach for the beam. I could do it on the floor beam, which clearly meant I could do it on the high beam.  But there is that second or two where you can't see, and you have to trust that you are aiming in the right direction so that when you come around your hands will have found the beam . . . and you won't be heading in a nosedive for the floor. (I used the word "simply" to be "ironical".)

I remember my coach, Ron, used to say to me, "Don't think, just do!" He'd praise me for how strong I was - being that he was a harsh man, any praise I got from him felt well-earned. So even though I was a chicken shit he didn't get annoyed at me, and that inspired me. But I also would listen when he would say, "I would not tell you to do something I don't believe you can do."  Over and over again, the message was the same: "Don't think!  Just do!"

This gave me a new way to approach lack of confidence. Instead of dealing with it with shame, I could simply "don't think, just do."

I had been stayed to practice during open gym after classes were over, and had been on the beam for the past hour, trying to will or summon up the confidence to turn over backward. I kept telling myself I could do it and feeding myself positive messages. I would try to visualize doing it successfully - instead I visualized falling on my head. I would try to count to three - or to ten - and just go. Didn't work.  I felt my body almost begin to bend backward - and instantly I would freeze.  There was no mind over matter.  In this case, quite clearly, it was matter over mind.  I felt helpless and angry with myself, ashamed at my chicken-y ways.

Then suddenly I had an epiphany. 
I couldn't will confidence, or summon it up, and then act on it. If I was going to wait to feel confidence, I would never do the trick. I had to put confidence on, like a change of clothes, and wear it -  even if it was akin to borrowing a stranger's outfit. I realized confidence was in choice and action, not in feeling. Or, perhaps, more accurately, not confidence, but courage. And then, I didn't think - I just did. And I bent over backward and caught the beam. It was an action, and from the action resulted the feeling I had been waiting for and attempting to summon from the deep.

And with this same gusto, shy little me went to France when she was 19 by herself with no exchange program whatsoever, met strangers who became lifelong friends, and accumulated stories including turf wars with an eccentric bordering on psychotic roommate, drinking lots of wine with my other darling roommate, attending French parties when I didn't know what was going on, attending more parties when I had finally figured out what was going on, and being mugged in broad daylight by a pregnant lady and her boyfriend.  (Yes.  This really happened.)


On the day that I quit gymnastics, my coach said something to me that has stuck with me all these years.  I had a terrible back injury that had only gotten progressively worse.  A three month break yielded temporary improvement before a backslide into a chronic state of pain which limited almost all of my abilities and prevented me from performing.  A nervous wreck in competition, I had been waiting for "that one season" when I would finally actually perform to my abilities and take home good scores.  That time clearly would never come.  On the day that I finally had the crushing realization that my back would never heal enough to allow me to be what I wanted, my feet walked themselves up to my coach Ron's office, where I announced that I had to quit, and though I had promised myself not to cry, immediately dissolved into tears.  But Ron told me he was proud of me.  And then he turned the tables in a way I didn't like or want to hear, but that I need to hear.  He reiterated how physically strong and hardworking I was.  But he insisted on one thing - my secret shame - "You are graduating high school at sixteen years old?  Do you know what a big deal it is to be as smart as you are?  If you put into that what you put into gymnastics . . ." My heart sunk as I heard these words, because I didn't want to be smart.  I wanted to be a good gymnast.  I wanted to be bold, and outgoing, and confident, and all the things I feared I would never be. 

I felt like a failure when I quit gymnastics, and I still have occasional fretful dreams in which I am attempting to do a routine and am not able to do it without messing up.  But I did walk away with one thing that has gotten me far more out of life than I ever would have expected: "Don't think! Just do!"  I sometimes remember this credo when I am in the midst of some struggle, or facing one of my most daunting fears - when I don't believe I can do something, but I do it anyway.

The biggest hurdle will be the day that I embrace the brains and talents I disowned so long ago, when they brought me great punishment . . . and the day that I embrace myself as deserving to receive love instead of trying to earn it.  These are the two real-life fears plaguing me, that I can't seem to find confidence to solve.  Maybe today is that day that I will stop thinking, stop trying to solve my anxiety of unveiling my writing, or my music . . . maybe today is the day that I don't wait for a stronger sense of my worth in relationships to let myself be loved.  Maybe I will make it that day.

What is YOUR test of faith?


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