Last summer, I had the opportunity to travel to British Columbia, Canada, on a men’s coaching trip. We went for the purpose of building community and growing individually, spiritually, and personally. It was a trip where we would be kayaking throughout the Johnstone Strait to various camp sites for several days. I suppose the spiritual development mostly occurred when we encountered several humpback whales while paddling in what is the equivalent of a toothpick to those whales less than 15 yards away. We later also encountered Orcas around the same distance, but this time we were on a beach. I’m sure I don’t have to explain how grateful I am about that—did I mention the other name for Orca is Killer Whale?
Seeing these sea mammals up close and personal literally took my breath away. It is difficult to describe the mixture of feelings in those moments: terror and pure awe, regret and fullness of gratitude, powerlessness and utter surrender.
Before I left for my trip, many folks that heard where I was going and what I would be doing shared their opinions and feelings of uncertainty and concern. Some questioned my sanity in playful and sarcastic ways. I had moments of concern myself leading up to the trip, but I also knew I needed to face my fears and take the risk of such an adventure.
In doing so, I discovered some of the best kept secrets of my life are revealed only when I am willing to abandon my strategies for “playing it safe” and move towards the places my fears tell me to avoid the most.
It is a surprising thing to try and paddle across big open water. You set out with excitement and adrenaline, put your head down and get after it. After about 30 minutes of paddling, you look up and then check to see if you are still tied to the shore you just left.
The first time we crossed the channel of the Johnstone Strait it literally took over an hour for the group to paddle a couple miles. I remember thinking to myself, “what have I gotten myself into?” (along with other things that I’ll leave to your imagination). I remember feeling exhausted and thinking that the shore on the horizon seemed to be getting further away, not closer. There was a sense of uncertainty and panic underlying everything in me as I was faced with the reality that the only way across was to keep paddling. Landing on the other shore gave a sense of accomplishment, pride, relief and gratitude. There was also a sense of dread looming ahead as I knew we would have to trek across the Strait at least once more.
Over the course of the rest of the week, I got more practice and experience in my kayak in open water and began to get more and more comfortable. What initially presented with persistent and chronic low-grade anxiety slowly transitioned into thinking less and enjoying more.
And then, the final crossing. We loaded up our kayaks on a cold, windy morning. We set off and the water was rougher than normal, but our guides gave us the go ahead after checking the forecast. By the time we made it into the Strait there were white cap waves bullying our slender vessel all over the place. It was a struggle and took even longer than the first crossing.
A little ways across I recognized having the same feelings of fear, anxiety and despair—with even more intensity than the first day. This time, though, I had a response to it: experience. I remembered the familiarity of these feelings and how their presence did not have to mean what I was afraid of would come true. Before, I made it across despite thinking I wouldn’t. I held on to this reality, which replenished my strength, hope and will not to let despair linger or take hold.
After we made it across, it became a rather cathartic moment for me to reflect on the experience. I was able to coexist with my fears, anxieties and fleeting moments of despair despite their intensity.
Historically, whenever I have had these feelings triggered within me the natural reaction would be to figure out what was causing these feelings and fix it. Then, avoid risks that could lead to feeling these feelings again in the future. I believed that avoiding situations that could produce unpleasant emotions was the best way forward. What I found on this trip was that taking risks is a necessary aspect in the process of growth. Of course, I knew this in theory, and would even promote this with others, but I didn’t realize how deeply I had been disconnected with it until I was forced into a situation where I could not control my environment to avoid these feelings.
Whenever I was content to avoid risks in the past, I was only concerned about not dying rather than focusing on really living. I was playing it safe for safety’s sake. Which is to say that even when I wasn’t connected with my fears, they were still controlling my decision making. Without identifying my fears and then taking risks towards facing them, I was unaware just how little growth I was experiencing.
Since I’ve been back from my trip I have continued to discover and rediscover how true this really is every day. The times I have felt the most inadequate, anxious, discouraged and exhausted, I begin exploring what I am afraid of and make efforts towards moving at those fears no matter how small the steps I can muster are. It’s here where I have continued to challenge the felt reality with the real reality and build a repertoire of experiences that I can draw from in the next risk. And let me tell you, growth is pretty great!