I planted my feet in the mulch at the bottom of the telephone pole, tightened my helmet for the tenth time and firmly set my hands on my harnessed hips. I expelled my breath slowly and leaned my head all the way back. Thirty-five feet is a long way to climb straight up, especially when all you have to get you to the top are some rungs that look like human-sized staples and your own strength. I took another deep breath and watched two co-workers Andy and Ben play around at the top like monkeys. It was August and I was part of a group of ten professionals at a high ropes course for a team building experience. Though it looked fun, I was uncertain because I didn’t know if I would make it to the top. I hadn’t exercised regularly in months. I spent the summer working as a hospital chaplain, which requires strength and endurance, but a very different sort. Would my meager physical resources be enough to heft me to the top?
There is little use puzzling or worrying over a challenge before you begin – generally challenges are only fully understood and met when engaged. So I took a few more deep breaths, gave myself a final pep talk, and began my climb. It was a steady ascent for the first twenty feet. The staples were just far enough apart that I had to use both my upper and lower body strength to climb each rung. Half way up the pole I took a little breather and smiled down at my co-workers and friends. I was encouraged. Even though my heart was pumping fast, my hands felt a little raw, and my feet ached against the metal ledges that supported me, I was impressed that I made it this far with relative ease. With my friends calling their support, I looked up again and resumed my climb. Only fifteen feet to go.
The farther I climbed, the more challenging the climb became. My heart’s pumping turned into pounding. My hands felt swollen and clumsy and became so sweaty they couldn’t securely grip the staples. The balls of my feet screamed against the weight of my body. But I kept going. After twelve more feet, I had to rest again. By now my face was bright red and my breathing labored. The platform mocked me even though it was closer than ever. The calls from my coworkers on the ground had changed from “wow” and “great job” to “you’re almost there” and “keep going!” My optimism faded to sheer focus and determination. Only a few more feet. “I can do this,” I told myself.
I reached up with my right hand, strained with my legs and made it to the next rung. That one step took more effort than the first twenty. Gritting my teeth, I reached up again, pulled and pushed, and this time let out a yell. I made it to the next rung with my heart slamming against my sternum. I started to feel nauseous. My mouth was dry, my vision blurry. I heard nothing but my own grunts and the blood that pumped passed my ears. My muscles started to quiver as I strained and screamed my way to the next rung. I was just below the metal platform. Ben’s hand was stretched toward me, just beyond my reach. I wanted to get to the top, to complete the challenge, but my shaking legs couldn’t hold me up anymore and my arms were wrapped around the pole in a death grip. My friends on the ground kept yelling that I only had a few feet to go. They all believed I could make it; I knew I couldn’t. I had reached the limits of my strength. Between gasped breaths, I yelled to the instructor that I was coming down. I peeled my arms and legs from around the pole and slowly walked down its length to collapse on the ground.
I lay there with my eyes closed and limbs stretched wide, feeling spasms work their way through each muscle group. Friends leaned over me, offering to help me up. I assured them that I was okay, but that I couldn’t move yet. I had to focus on breathing and recovering. The mulch was my gurney for a good five minutes. I slowly sat up and pulled myself into a nearby chair where I watched as seven other people climbed the pole and reached the platform. I felt shaky and worn and completely satisfied.
The temptation was to believe that I failed. Somehow our culture or something else ungodly has convinced us that only perfection or completion are acceptable and worthy of praise. Perfection and completion are weighty absolutes and if we live only by these standards most of us are doomed to feelings of failure and inadequacy. If we push ourselves too hard to win or succeed or be perfect, we risk wounding ourselves in ways that we may not recover from. I could have looked up at that pole and told myself that I failed, that I was weak, a quitter and been ashamed for giving up. I could have continued to push myself physically just to prove something I didn’t need to prove and hurt myself. All this would have been a waste of time.
In loving myself, I focus on the success of every one of the thirty-four feet that I conquered. I believe in the wisdom of recognizing limitations – I am healthy today because I listened to mine and stepped down. I remember my high ropes adventure with satisfaction because whether I view the thirty-four feet from the top or the bottom, it is the same, great distance.