Then she told me she'd tried to commit suicide in the last couple of years. Twice.
"So you already know there's no easy way out," I said.
"This life isn't for sissies, right?"
"No. No, it isn't..."
One afternoon last week I found myself in a little village hall somewhere in Dorset, giving a talk on my current book about walking over the Pyrenees and across Spain for 800km with my two sons, aged 16 and 12. The hall began to fill, and the chatter rose, and very soon an ordinary Wednesday afternoon was very much engaged.
Afterwards I found this lady in a wheelchair waiting outside the hall, and I stopped to thank her for her interesting question in Q&A. She then asked if she could talk to me more. We wandered back to my car, and hung out chatting.
At first she asked me how could she have what I had? I didn't know what she meant but she'd asked about getting "unwrapped" and “shrinking to fit“, inside the hall, so I asked what her story was.
She's in her sixties and, despite no longer having the use of her legs or arms, remodeled her own house. She’s travelled the world, and recited a poem she'd written while out walking in a field. She wanted to find a way to express herself, but she wasn't "commercially minded", she said.
Looking at her, I felt as if I were standing over small gift gently placed at my feet. A carefully wrapped, untouched parcel that could contain depths thousands of feet beyond the edge of sunlight, deeper than the highest mountain, and beyond the physical reach of humanity, yet I could not know while it contained it all so tightly.
Crouching down on the tarmac, I put my hand on her knee and told her what I saw. All I can give you is that we all want the world to be huge, but at the same time we want to be familiar with it. To find meaning, and find we mean something.
"Yes" was all that came back, with relief...
To do that we have to risk putting ourselves out there, risk our life to save it. To live fully on this pathless adventure called life, we have to throw ourselves out in to the unknown.
The challenge of living in this world can dull our eagerness for the beauty, for life. Hearts break, bodies get diseases, people divorce, and they die. Even the ordinary brutality of idle criticism, or petty gossip, can teach us to be afraid to fight for our dreams.
While we try to work out how to survive, there simply comes an unmarked - an unremarkable - day when we draw back. Eventually, we tell ourselves we are now wise and rational to want so little from life - and we shrink to fit the box we make for ourselves.
From safe inside our box we hear the sounds of other people’s dreams shattering, we smell their acrid frustration, and hear their bones snapping. Many times we watch others endure bruising defeat, and we wonder when they will grow up too; and we ignore the dull ache in our hearts.
But, what we can’t see from inside that box of ours is the fire in their eyes, we can’t feel the knot in the stomach, or know the thrill, the sheer thrill in the hearts of those who are fully-engaged in their life.
Nothing good comes out of comfort zones. We have to get to the edge of our comfort zone—the edge of that box--right where we start to feel afraid, and climb out into the unknown.
My unknown will be different to yours, but actually yours is not really unknown you have just hidden it from yourself. In fact, you know it intimately; it's the thing you've never given yourself permission to be. We are right there waiting for ourselves, a vast and fathomless power. That should terrify us, that's how we begin to feel alive.
“But I’m not very good at anything.”
Take strength in the fact that you have survived the lie that made you believe you had to play small. I suggest you just have a mordant internal narrative that talks you into focusing on something you don’t like about yourself. Like when in school we were told we were not very good at math so, “You must work harder at math”. We focused on the things we were bad at instead of being told “You are good at English, why don’t you focus on that and get really great at it.”
You are enough. None of us is perfect, we don’t know everything and we make mistakes. The things you don’t know you’ll learn, or you’ll ask for help with because that’s how it works.
“How can you be sure?”
Because it’s true for me too.
While out walking for 33 days with my sons, I had time to think about what qualities of mind and spirit we needed on our adventure. Our real selves, our intuitions, our thoughts, need to come out of hiding, and we need to walk out into the world.
We can always shrink back, any time. That is always there for us all, and maybe we need to do that sometimes as part of all this, as a breathing space. But, not at the expense of all that we are.
That woman in her wheelchair reached out for my hand on her knee and said, “My exit strategy didn’t work, but I don’t have a re-entry strategy.”
I curled my fingers into hers, and we held hands. From my research work on my first book, Toasters Don’t Roast Chickens, I know it is a biological fact that we cannot be in growth and protection at the same time, it is not possible. So remember to feel the thrill of soaring, you have to get over the fear of falling.
No one likes to feel vulnerable, but the reality is that you can only know as much depth, happiness and success as you are prepared to know vulnerability. It's a radical act of defiance to take all that you are, all that you have learned, and give of yourself; unwrapped from all that has made you shrink to fit.
We have to be stronger than our excuses; nobody can do it for us. It's not about confidence, confidence is overrated, it can get knocked. It’s not about resolutions so much as being resolute; determination is our companion. Determination allows for doubt, and it allows for humility, and it is steadfast.
Of course it's terrifying to wade out of the stew of our insecurities, we need courage to get past the fear; but when the fear is gone courage will no longer be relevant, then we need faith - faith in ourselves.
If we are to have any sense of faith, we need to learn to read the inner essence of a landscape, but most importantly, we need to master our own inner landscape.
I paused for a moment and asked my beautiful friend if I had her permission to say one more thing. Eventually we realise we have nothing to lose except the emotional flatline.
My own experience, and an observable fact, it is that small space inside where you go to hide that is actually the place where life happens. It’s not about finding a passion, it’s about not shrinking to fit and being passionate about your life.
Wake up every morning and ask yourself what are you going to do with this one glorious day? Just get up every day and do something, one thing. You don’t walk 800km overnight; you do it one day at a time…
Get your grit together and let’s do this. The best time climb out of the Shrink Wrap was twenty years ago, the next best time is now. That is it. In the ordinary struggle is your awakening, and nothing will ever be the same again.
We hugged and parted. I think of her today and she inspires me with her willingness to be vulnerable and ask a stranger for advice. In that one act I know she is already finding her way back to the vast resource--the re-source--of herself.
Have you an experience you can tell our beautiful friend about not shrinking to fit, and a particular tip that helped you unwrap?
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