There she was, my typically cautious 3-year-old, up higher than she’d ever been by herself. She was glaring down at me from the top of the tallest tower in the entire playground with palpable fear in her eyes.
She cried, “Mommy, help me! I’m scared!”
It was only after she’d climbed up to the highest level of the play structure that she realized that the only way to get back to safety was to go down the dark blue tunnel slide.
We’ve talked a lot about this slide. Simply looking at it would scare her. She once said, as we passed by, “I hate that slide!”
I can see why. It spirals and twists from that tippy-top, third level of the play structure all the way down to the ground. Once you are in the slide you can’t see out since it is fully enclosed—if, for example, you were looking for reassurance from your mommy. And, because of its dark blue shade, you’re mostly in the dark while you’re going down. You only see the light as you approach the end.
I replied at the time, “I know, baby doll. You don’t ever have to do it! Not unless you want to. Or not if you don’t feel ready.”
But now, as she peered down at me through big crocodile tears, we both knew there simply wasn’t any other choice. The rock wall she effortlessly climbed in order to get there could not be scaled down the same way. If she wanted to get down to the ground, she needed to be brave. She’d have to face her fear and go down the slide.
It makes me think of the saying, “Being brave doesn’t mean you aren’t scared. It’s knowing that you are, but doing it anyway.”
More than three decades of life lessons have taught me a great deal about being brave and overcoming fear; usually the hard way. For instance, flying on airplanes has always caused my palms to sweat. There’s nothing like the plane taking off from the ground to make me feel small and out of control. I always pray before and during any flight I take. It scares me, but I do it anyway.
When my husband and I met, it was because friends insisted on setting us up on a blind date. It was terrifying to think about showing up to meet a stranger, especially one I was supposed to be romantically interested in. Worse yet, he was supposed to be interested in me too! What if that wasn’t the case? What if it didn’t work out? Something inside of me said It’s OK to be scared. But just do it.
I wanted a daughter for many years before I ever had one. Once dreams become a reality and you’re faced with the prospect of birthing your first child, it’s hard not to be scared. Despite the childbirth classes, support from friends and family, and all the ways I prepared, I knew this was a fear there was no choice but to face when it came time.
Trusted doctors would later tell us my daughter’s condition couldn’t be improved without surgical intervention. They said her injury was lifelong, but in order to regain as much function as possible, she would need surgery. The scariest thing I’ve ever done is let my infant be whisked into another room to be placed under anesthesia without me to endure a four-hour operation. I’ve never been braver than the moment when I let them take my baby, in her orange hospital gown, down the hallway to that OR. Despite how petrified I was, despite the nauseating fear, I did it anyway.
Driving over high bridges causes much of the same physical response for me as flying on an airplane: sweaty palms, increased heart rate, nervous panic over the height we ascend to because I think What if I fall?
My sweet, moldable toddler has observed this from her car seat view over the years and began to mimic this behavior by saying she felt nervous too. I would ease her uncertainties by reminding her how brave we are. What makes us brave is knowing we’re scared, but doing it anyway. We’ve got a destination that’s on the other side of this bridge!
Bravery has gotten me over every single bridge. It’s allowed my precious child to have use of her left arm. It brought me to my life partner. Provided me with the strength I needed to deliver my daughter into this world. It’s taken me on unforgettable adventures each time I’ve stepped onto a plane.
Good or bad, life has taught me just how important it is to be brave.
This was not as clear to my daughter at the moment she was struggling with her fate at the top of the playground tower. I knew she could do it. That she needed to.
I tried encouraging her with the words I have learned to be true over the years. “You’ve got to be brave and go down the slide. It’s the only way down. Even though you won’t be able to see me, I’ll talk to you the whole time so that you know I’m here. Look for the light. Because you’ll see it when you’re getting close to the end. I know you feel scared, and that’s OK. But remember, just like the bridges, being brave is doing it anyway!”
Understanding replaced the fear on her face. She nodded and sat silently at the slide’s opening. She watched other kids on the ground happily playing tag and swinging on the swing set. She waited almost a minute until she gritted her teeth and gave herself a push.
She went down every dark turn without being able to see me. I could hear her using her hands to slow down when she needed to. And sure enough, as she approached the end she literally saw light at the end of the tunnel, just as I told her she would. She giggled, “I’m almost there, Momma!”
When she emerged from that tunnel we clapped, we high-fived, we hugged. She was exploding with self-confidence.
Can you guess what happened next?
She climbed up the rock wall and went down that dark, long, twisty slide at least 10 more times. Over and over again I watched her do what she only recently thought she never could.
It’s a heavy lesson for a three-year-old, but on that playground, she learned that to get where we need to go and that there isn’t always an easy path. We need to take some hard, scary steps toward light we can’t yet see. It will be there every time in the end.
And we’ve got to trust there are people supporting us every step of the way, whether we can see them or not.
Being brave doesn’t mean we’re not afraid. But certain hardships can only be overcome by doing it anyway. And when we do that, we just might surprise ourselves with how much life we can really experience.