Some of my former seventh graders are now on their way to college. It is exciting for me to think of my time as a teacher as part of the cycle of life — as part of the fabric of someone’s education.
I was talking with one of these people just before she left for Yale. Lauren was talking about the combination of fear and excitement that is such apart of going to new lands. Listening to her, I thought about the big transitions in my own life.
Most recently, of course, was Emma’s birth. Cynthia, our Bradley birth coach teacher, told us that childbirth is a peak experience. An experience of such intensity that it marks a transition from one time and place to another. Part of the experience of labor, part of the challenge, the fear, the pain, the uncertainly — these made it clear that we were entering a new part of our lives. And in confronting that together, we had Emma. Like steel being heated and tempered, the layers became stronger and stronger. It is funny to hear Patty talk about the birth now — I am sure she remembers the fear and pain, but they have become irrelevant.
Are peak experiences always charged by fear and pain? There is something about confronting those “negative” feelings — about going 100% into the teeth of the storm. In the storms, sometimes I wonder if I am coming to the end of my rope. It seems to me that so long as I do not arbitrarily define the “end of the rope,” the rope keep getting longer and longer — that my own capacity to cope expands in accord with the need. It is only when I tell myself that I am at the failure point that I break down.
So maybe that’s what it means to have a peak experience — to face the challenge, to dig in despite(or even because of) the fear, and find that you are more than capable — that your rope is at least that long. Maybe that’s why some people welcome “impossible” physical challenges. For me, it has always been the emotional challenges that truly test and temper my identity.
Of course, when we stay in the fear — usually by avoiding, distracting, procrastinating — we do not reach the peak. For example, Lauren’s friend was afraid to go all the way to NYU, so he gave up his scholarship and went to a local university where he is now unhappy. The opportunity is passed…
When I first when to college I had a similar experience. I ended up turning in my application to Yale past the due date. That event is far enough in the past that I can see that I was playing a ridiculous charade — why did I turn it in at all once I was late? What is more challenging is to see the small ways that I avoid going 100% — ways that I keep from getting near those peak experiences by pretending I want something other than what I really do seek, by pretending that I am at the end of my rope, by telling myself that it is not really necessary to go the extra mile.
I do not believe that we only “get better” by hitting rock bottom. A peak experience is not going through Dante’s seven circles of hell simply to see what is on the other side. I have seen that people also change because they experience joy and hope, they live a new way and find that it is better. But whatever the moment — joy or pain — if we do not fully engage, we do not truly live, and we do not grow. When we do engage, that presence of mind is part of the peak experience. As we near the summit, no air ever tasted so sweet, no view was ever so inspiring.
So those of you needing the courage to be in the moment, take heart. Your rope is as long as it needs to be — and you can always tie a knot, hang on, and yell for help. The worst case is not falling off the mountain, it is never daring the summit.