I remember standing on a concrete fence, surrounded by friends, all eyes on me as I prepared for a jump to the branch on our “Tarzan” tree. The branch seemed rather far from the fence, shiny and smooth from all the little hands that had grabbed it over the years. It was a tricky jump. Given our average height and reach that year, you really had to get it just right, otherwise you’d either miss altogether, or else not grab on well enough and end up sliding right off. In either case, you’d be flat on your back in the dirt. Ouch.
All kids in my group had tried that jump, and most, if not all, fell at some point. Most walked away with a scratch or sore bum, but one had the air knocked out of her once and scared us all half to death until we realized she was ok, and her parents were not going to round us up and put us in jail.
Anyway, this was going to be my first jump. I wanted to do it many times before, but chickened out every time I got on that fence. On this day however, I was going to do it and that was that. Still, I was convinced I wouldn’t make it. So, I figured I would do the safest thing and at least plan my fall. If I expected to fall, I could at least be in control… not get injured and fall gracefully. Yes, a very logical plan. I took a deep breath and off into the air I went.
I fell of course, as planned. And badly. It was very painful, and I’m lucky I didn’t break my neck. But, a few days later, I decided to try again. This time, I was alone. And I didn’t plan on falling, rather, I thought that’s it, it’s ridiculous for me to be the only kid who fails at the “Tarzan” tree. I didn’t breathe, I didn’t think, I just jumped. And there I was, an instant later, swinging on that branch, little Jane herself…and sadly without an audience to witness my triumph.
For the rest of the summer, I did that jump many times. And yes, I fell a few times, and got a bit bruised. But I learned then that the worst idea ever is to plan to fail at something.
Now I know most of the big issues we deal with in life are not as simple as jumping from a fence onto a branch. I also know that the two things we are conditioned to expect are not success or happiness, but failure and pain. We learn about them from a very early age, and they suck. So even though we may not consciously focus on them, there’s no denying they stand guard in the distance over every single thing we do, every plan we make and every conclusion we draw about the past, present or future.
Sometimes life really challenges and knocks us down. In many cases, hitting the proverbial rock bottom serves to inspire and motivate. But it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes we only end up defeated, completely worn out and afraid. And as we dwell in this helpless, confused and fearful state, wondering how to get up and even why, we inevitably recognize that if we do get up and try again, there’s no guarantee of avoiding further encounters with failure and pain.
So of course, we immediately and instinctively start to think of ways to protect ourselves.
Sometimes, this means we’re more careful and work harder at whatever it is we’re trying to achieve; we allow a shift in perspective, more flexibility. But all too often, we end up doing what I first did at the “Tarzan” tree…plan to fail so as to have some control. Better to prepare for the worst than for the worst to happen when we’re not paying attention, when we’re optimistic and looking towards goals with confidence, expecting wonderful results.
Problem is, when you look forward from a pessimistic perspective and essentially plan to fail, you will fail, and get hurt…every single time. If you continue the pattern, you’ll keep failing and hurting until it becomes a way of life, and all you expect or know how to set yourself up for is failure and pain. You eventually even start to believe it’s all you’re capable of and all you deserve. You don’t see the good things anymore, or else when you do, you push them away because they’re risky, they challenge your logic which is very humiliating on top of everything else, and you also feel unable to live up to or deserving of success and happiness.
It’s so sad how good we can get at punishing ourselves by setting up for failure and adapting to this way of life. Just think how much we suffer because we’re constantly failing and hurting ourselves, and how much we also suffer in the absence of the things we deeply want and need. So much effort put into holding ourselves down, when it would take a fraction of that effort for us to let go, spread our wings and just fly.
We all know that the hardest things to change are those we don’t acknowledge. And the nature of the beast here is that it does become a way of life, so after a while, we honestly have a hard time recognizing how very wrong it is. When we eventually or occasionally do, it’s so humiliating to face, it seems so hard to change, and there’s suddenly so much pressure on us that we can’t be blamed if we just panic and back away from it all.
I know what it feels like to back away…to get down off the concrete fence and not jump. It’s like it all happened yesterday. I can also feel that sense of dread and impending doom in the pit of my stomach as I see myself facing that branch, imagining how it will hurt if I fall. But what I remember best is what it felt like to jump and make it. That was the best feeling in the world, worth all the dread and fear, all the risk.
Even though over two summers I grew too tall for the “Tarzan” tree to be a challenge, whenever I passed by on that side of the park on my way to school or some friend’s house, I always looked at it and smiled. Even now it makes me smile when I think of it, and how planning to fail that jump off the fence was truly the worst idea ever. And even though that jump was a small thing as far as life achievements go, I am so glad I get to revisit the scene without having to experience regret at never having tried.