How many times have you watched someone doing something and said to yourself: “I could never do that in a million years!” This is one of those instances where ignorance is truly bliss, because if you don’t know that you can’t do it, you’ll probably try, and who knows- maybe you really can do it! I used to think about this a lot with my cat Belle. She was a tall big boned green eyed calico who was a rescue from a local vet. Some high school kids brought her in as a kitten when they heard her crying in a dumpster. She’d been hit by a car and just tossed in like trash, and as a result she lost a back leg. When I brought her home the week after Thanksgiving, she still had the stitches from the amputation, and after taking a couple of days to get used to me, my house and my dogs, she promptly scaled the pet-gate and the Christmas tree. She got into everything she could, because no one told her she couldn’t. (She was also the vicious “attack cat” whenever anyone came to the house- my four-legged cat hides under the bed!)
She was not the first “disabled” cat our family has had. When we were in college, we had Mowgli who was blind. One eye was opaque due to scarring from an infection and the other had to be removed (same infection). She also climbed everywhere (including the NordicTrac) and got into every bag we had, every closet and under everywhere she would fit: “Be careful with that! Mowgli’s probably in it!” and she was! She didn’t know she was blind and couldn’t do everything “normal” cats could. Like Belle, no one had ever told her she couldn’t, so she did whatever she wanted.
You’d think people would have more sense than our pets, but I think we are in danger of convincing ourselves there are things we can’t do, either from fear of failure or embarrassment. We think we can’t so we don’t even try and as a result, we end up being right: we cannot do it (whatever “it” is). The task does not defeat us: we defeat ourselves! “We have met the enemy and they are us!”
I have a bit of a reputation for trying almost anything. It’s not because I’m some kind of super confident and self assured person (oh so not me!); it’s because of a couple of things that happened my senior year in high school. One of them I’ve mentioned on this blog before: at our final exam, one of my teachers, Sister Patrice (yes, I went to Catholic high school) gave every senior a paper butterfly with a positive trait she had noticed about them and mine said “open minded.” Part of my “I’ll try anything” mindset comes from that. I’ve tried hard not to lose it over the years and I think it’s done me good.
The second thing that taught me to try even though failure looked imminent was my senior PE final: we had to run two miles (8 times around the track). We didn’t have to beat a time; we just had to finish. I was the second fattest girl in my class (in the whole school FYI) and after she announced what the final was (we got a week or so to train for it), the teacher, Coach Betty, told me that I and the other girl, Jennifer, were exempt from running, obviously because of our weight. I don’t think Jennifer ran the track (she was exempt from PE altogether), but the thought of being “the only one who didn’t run” in my period was far more mortifying than failure, so I changed into my shorts and sneakers and ran with the rest of them. On the day of the final, I was the last lone runner on the track, but I finished all 8 laps. I was panting, could hardly breathe and could hardly walk back to the locker room, but I’ll never forget the smile on Coach Betty’s face. She was so proud of me. She said “you knew you could do it!” Actually I didn’t, but to give up without trying was way more embarrassing than falling flat on my face. If I failed, at least I made a good attempt and all I had to do was keep running. I figured it’d be less embarrassing to pass out on the track trying to do it than not to run at all.
In much the same way that we can overestimate ourselves, we also underestimate our abilities. Before we even try, we think we’ll fail and that fear of failure and the accompanying embarrassment is overwhelming. We’re afraid of being laughed at, being humiliated, having everyone staring and making comments. We love being the center of attention when we do something right and we hate being the butt of the jokes when we screw up. But in most cases it’s only the fear itself that is the only boogeyman we’ve got to watch out for. Many times, the failure itself, if it actually happens, is seen as mostly a bump in the road by everyone else. You tried, you failed, you move on and so does everyone else. You are the only one who makes a big deal out of it. You are afraid of the fear of looking foolish, and once you accept that everyone looks foolish at one time or another, it’s no big deal.
Sometimes not knowing that you can’t do something leaves you open to the possibilities; it’s almost like knowing that you can’t keeps you from doing it. Case in point: in 2003, I shattered my left wrist. My hand was actually pushed into my arm about an inch- it was like my wrist was gone. The break was so bad the doctor told me he’d never seen a wrist look like that. The word he used to describe my metacarpals (the bones in my wrist) was “gravel.” I ended up having a plate put in with five screws to secure it to whatever wasn’t broken. I was in a cast for six weeks and ended up spending about 10 weeks in physical therapy. If any of you have ever had PT, you know they evaluate you when you first show up and then they do it again when you finish to measure your improvement. When I started, I could not touch my fingers to my palm, let alone bend my wrist. It was frozen solid and frankly it scared me more than a little. So, let’s just say I was motivated.
When I left PT, they did their final evaluation and I had approximately 90% of my hand/ wrist function back. I could pick up fine objects like pins and ball bearings, and I could move my wrist forward, backward and twist it around. Pretty much the only thing I could not do was press my palm against a flat surface like a table or a wall because it hurt and I could feel the screws in my bones. The other thing I could not do is carry a bag with a strap across the incision/ scar (like women do with a purse), because again I feel the screws biting into my bones. So, overall, I was pretty happy, and so was the therapist. She told me that they had estimated I would only regain about 70% of my wrist function because of the break and the surgery. I was shocked: no one had told me the prognosis was so grim (they didn’t think it was grim but I sure as h*ll did)! I often wonder if my knowing would have made a difference.
I’ve always been one of those people who tries things even though failure looks imminent, and those two events in my life (three actually) really reassured me that I wasn’t wrong to try. (This is code for “I’m no longer afraid of looking like a doofus!”) By contrast, my friend G. was the exact opposite. She was my sister’s roommate when my sis moved back to the valley, and she was working as an administrative assistant in an office but what she really wanted to do was be a nurse. When my sister asked her why she didn’t apply to nursing school, she immediately came up with “reasons”: she wasn’t smart enough; it was too hard; her family told her she couldn’t do it; all kinds of reasons why she would fail. It reminds me of an episode on the The Simpsons where Homer gives Bart some “fatherly” advice and Bart replies:”Can’t win, don’t try! Got it!” This was G.’s thinking completely: don’t even try it because you won’t make it. My sister and I both told her if the worst you can do is fail and you’ve already accepted that, where’s the harm in trying? Eventually, she applied to nursing school and now she’s an RN.
The point I’m trying to make is that you need to keep an open mind about whatever it is you are considering. Sometimes, we surprise ourselves with what we can do! I recently started taking a weekly aerobics class. This is a different class than my water aerobics because- yup! no pool! It’s only a half hour but it feels like a lot more work and it also involves getting on the floor to do some stretches and exercises. There are some wrestling mats that we use, and frankly I was more than a little concerned, since my knees are not the best. I tried crawling under a desk a few weeks ago at the office and the pain on my arthritic knees was extreme and getting back up was seriously in doubt. I was hoping I could do at least half of the workout and to my shock, I was able to do the whole thing, even on the mats. I could get up and get down, if not smoothly, at least without too much trouble! One of the instructors makes a point each time of telling me how good I am doing in the class. I am by far the largest person in the class and probably the least mobile, but I show up each week, when some of the others don’t (there were four of us one week, including the two instructors!) He’s always glad to see me show up and keep trying, and even though I have no intentions of not showing up, it’s nice that he is so encouraging (besides keeping up with my activity, I also paid for the class and I don’t get a rebate for missed classes!) The positive feedback makes me feel good, which is no doubt why he does it. The class only runs for two months before the break for the holidays (it’s at the local community college) and I can tell already that I’m going to miss it when it’s over, and I will probably sign up for another one in the Spring semester.
That’s pretty good for someone who was doubtful she would be able to keep up with the half hour workout! That’s pretty much my point: if I had been too scared to take the class, I would never have known what I could do, and I would have stayed right where I was. Six weeks into the class (again only half an hour each week), I can already see my progress. The exercises are less of a struggle, I’m stronger and more flexible and I feel more confident each time I show up. I’m also less tired and less sore the following day. This is what I have gained by pushing myself just a little past my comfort zone. I admit, it was a little uncomfortable thinking that I wouldn’t be able to get up off the floor and it would be embarrassing. It was a little scary (rather more than a little actually) thinking that I’d have to sit out more than a few of the exercises because I wasn’t flexible enough or fit enough to do them. I thought of The Simpsons episode again: “Can’t win, don’t try!” I thought about Belle, sitting in the kitchen doorway hissing at my dad, “the stranger in her house.” Yeah, a 12 lb three-legged cat is sooo intimidating! But there she was, defending her territory regardless. Ultimately, what was I scared of? Looking foolish in front of strangers because I dared to try improving myself? I was reminded recently of a speech called “The Man in the Arena” [excerpted from “Citizenship in A Republic”] by Teddy Roosevelt (Elizabeth Benton read it on a recent Primal Potential podcast): “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena … who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…” It felt a lot like it did when I was in high school, running those laps: I didn’t know if I was going to make it or not, but if I was going to fail, it wasn’t going to be because I never tried! Keep daring greatly, and you might surprise yourself by succeeding!