Your hands are trembling. You’ve broken down into full fledged tears three and a half times, screamed with fear six, and we have been on the children’s rope bridge in Disney’s California Adventure for going on 45 minutes. Finally, half paralyzed with fear and tension, you crawl the final few feet to the break in the long downward spiral of this seemingly endless course, and I take your hand and steer you toward the stairs.
“No.” We sit on a nearby bench and I pick you up onto my lap. You look at me, big tears in your eyes which are also my eyes, and say again: “No. I want to keep going. I want to do it again.”
“Love, you don’t seem like you are having fun. You are crying and scared. You don’t have to do this! We can take the stairs! It’s supposed to be fun.”
My eyes, stubborn and defiant in your exhausted face, blink the tears away. “No. I want to do it again.”
I’m 15 years old, suspended three quarters of the way up a summer camp climbing wall, and those stubborn tears, hot like yours, are defying me by sliding down to pepper the top of my t-shirt. Below me, a handful of friends and a counselor who have watched me struggle for a solid 45 minutes, shout words of encouragement: “Hey! You did a great job!! You are so tired! It’s okay if you don’t make it all the way! Just say the word and you can come down!”
I am tired. My arms and fingers are somehow both on fire and practically frozen, my heart is beating faster than it should be, and I can’t see for the sweat and tears, neither of which I have the power to stop. But “no” says the bullheaded thump inside of me. No. I want to keep going. I want to do it again.
“Are you sure?” I ask you, lifting you off my lap and on to the ground. “If we go again, I cannot help you. I have to hold on so I don’t fall down and make you fall down. You will have to do it all by yourself.”
“Okay.” My eyes your eyes are sure. And thirty minutes later we are down on the ground, and you are victorious, having only cried once more, and not screamed, and made it all on your own the rest of the way, and I have never seen myself in you more clearly.
That prideful will of ours? It will serve you and it will break you it. You will be its hostage as often as it will make you a hero. It is a wild and noble, terrible and destructive thing. It’s the balance in you that will walk away from crippling shame and failure and turn right back to meet it the next day. It holds no weight and record of pain. It does not bruise or burn. The same core that allows you to risk crashing boldly into love a thousand times will also forget to remember the stove was hot when you touched it.
It won’t always show up when you need it. Fear will win, again and again, and losing will hurt a little more when you wonder why the fight in you isn’t burning. It will arrive when you least expect it, at the wrong time, too late, too early. It’s unpredictable and strange.
Here is what else it forgets: It is okay to fail. It is okay to leave a thing when the leaving is necessary. It is okay to stop giving when your arms are empty. It is okay to rest and try again. It is good to let precious things, especially people, have a little space to return to you. It is good to learn what your limits are. It is good to know an ending when you hold one. It is okay to be less, to be only, to be you. You do not have anything to prove.
But here is what it knows: You are able. Pain is a temporary tax for growth, and you are enough to pay it. Hurt and struggle and broken hearted nights are inevitable visitors, but there are things for which they are worth enduring. If you can harness it to serve your ethic instead of your pride, it can be an unparalleled force for all that is good in you. If you can bend it and tame it and teach it to come when its called, it will allow you to love the unlovable, to hold space for impossible things, to see the rights and wrongs of the world and call them beautiful and come up swinging.
It will break you in half for no damn good reason, but it will make you fierce.
“I was brave, wasn’t I?”
Yeah, little fighter.
Stubborn, and foolish, and beautiful, and brave.