What makes us stronger?

A sailing blog I follow (Tillerman) posted  a link to an article from Psychology Today saying that, contrary to popular opinion,  What doesn’t kill us makes us WEAKER.

When I first read the article, I was a little let down.  Here I was thinking that all the crap I’ve been through in the last 5 years has made me stronger, when in fact it’s probably made me weaker and less resilient.  Bummer.

Then I got to thinking about my experience with Outward Bound.  Outward Bound was started in 1941 during WWII.  It’s founding mission was to give young seamen the ability to survive harsh conditions at sea by teaching confidence, tenacity, perseverance and to build experience of harsh conditions.   It turns out that young, strong men who should have survived were instead dying, not because the conditions were so harsh they should have died – but because they didn’t have the belief in themselves to persevere and make it.

So they came up with a program that gives progressive positive experience overcoming challenges.  This leads to confidence that can be applied to later situations that might not be so positive.

I went to an outward bound course in the early 90’s.  I had some experiences that now, over 20 years later are still crystal clear.  It was a two week expedition with 1 week of whitewater canoeing on the Rio Grande, and then 1 week of desert backpacking in the Big Bend area of Texas.   Like many Outward Bound treks, mine had a rock climbing expedition planned.  I had a pretty solid fear of heights, and in my imagination the climb got higher, and harder, and higher, and harder.  I was petrified.  I worried about the climbing for the entire two weeks of the trip.  Then on the LAST day, we did the climb.

We went to a cliff on the side of the Rio Grande river.  It was 80 feet from top to bottom.  We started at the top, and looking down it looked like a LOOONNNNGGGGG way down.  We would be rappelling down, and then climbing back up.  Our instructors gave us a little safety brief, suited us up in the climbing harnesses, and offered a choice of 3 different climbs.  Easy, Medium, and difficult.  Naturally, I took the easy one.

As I stood at the edge holding on to the rope with a stranglehold, FEAR was running pretty rampant.  Then I backed to the edge and started the transition from standing straight up, to standing horizontally on the side of the cliff – leaning back and “Trusting” the rappelling rope.  During the transition, my foot slipped and I swung down and sideways into the cliff.  I scrapped/banged my elbow pretty bad and started dripping blood.  At this point I was going no matter what.  I was tired of being afraid.  I got my feet settled on the cliff and started down.  Even though I was shaking, I was elated to find myself standing at the bottom throwing off the rappelling line.

Now came the calls.  “On Belay!”,   “Belay On!” and I started climbing back up.  Put a hand here, a foot there, next hand up, next foot up.  I did like they said and used my legs rather than my arms and next thing I new I was at the top.  And it was FUN!.  I waited a bit and then went on the medium difficulty climb.  No problem!  Then I went on the hard climb.  Whoopie!  I sat down with the group basking in the glow of accomplishment.  Some people were so hesitant that they did one climb and called it a day.  There was plenty of time left, so I thought “what the heck”, I’ll do it again.  I did the hard one again and then sat down with the group.  That’s 4 climbs to most people’s 1 climb.  (Just sayin…)

Before I tell this part, I need to let you know that I came on this trip to really push my boundaries.  I was determined to do everything I could to get everything possible out of being here.  That meant that whenever I was offered a chance to do something, I did it.  Sort of like doing every dare that people say, except that I trusted the trip leaders and knew they wouldn’t put up to something that I couldn’t do.

Back to the story.  I took off my harness and sat lounging with the group.  Then the lead instructor came over.  “OK, who wants to….” , my hand shot up.  “… climb blindfolded”.   “WHAT DID YOU SAY?”

She was serious.  Blindfolded.  At this point I just had to believe it was possible.  I rappelled down and put on my bandanna like a blindfold.  Then I started feeling the wall.  I can remember the warmth of the rock, and the heat of the sun that was finally over the canyon rim.  I felt sweat dripping, and my palms were clammy.  But I felt good.  I knew I could do it.  I believed I could do it because she believed I could do it.  All those previous climbs gave me positive confidence that I could make it.  The process became pretty simple.  I held on with 1 hand and 2 feet.  Then I felt with my free hand for a place to put my foot and then a place to put hand.  Back and forth I felt for the two holds.  Then placed my foot, stepped up and started the process over again.  I “felt” myself getting higher and higher, and heard the sound of the river get further away.  The instructor’s voice was getting closer.  Then it happened.

As I reached around to find a handhold – NOTHING!  Smooth rock.  Frantically I searched around.  Still nothing.  Then my instructor’s voice.  “I know you can’t touch it, but it’s there.  About a foot above your hand is a ledge.  You’re going to have to jump up and grab it.”  Now wait a minute!  Here I am blindfolded, hanging on the side of a cliff about 70 feet above the ground, and you want me to jump?  ARE YOU CRAZY!?  “Trust me, you can do it” was all she said.

So I jumped.  Grabbed.  Found the ledge, and pulled myself up and over the top.  Wow!  What a thrill.

Sometimes in life you just have to believe in yourself and go ahead and do what you know you need to do.  I’ve got some challenges ahead.  Starting a new job, in a new place, where I don’t know anybody.  But I know I can do it and succeed.  And hey, if it doesn’t kill me it will just make me stronger, right?

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4 thoughts on “What makes us stronger?

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