You are stronger than you think: what struggles teach you

By the time we reached the hike’s destination, darkness was beginning to fall.  There was no time to linger. We admired the city splayed out in front of us. And began our trek down.

Nelson from Pulpit Rock

Nelson from Pulpit Rock

Pulpit Rock is a popular hike for Nelsonites. Located across the river from the city, it is a favourite choice because of the easy access and spectacular views of Nelson. The trail is 1.8 km long and with 300 metres of elevation. 

My sister, who had been visiting me for 3 weeks, adopted the routine of walking up to Pulpit Rock daily. This time I joined her.

I can’t remember now why we started the climb so late in the afternoon. What I know is that if my sister calculated the time based on her experience, she underestimated how long it would take with me along.

As we descended, we entered the forested area and we could occasionally see the lights of Nelson through the spaces between the trees.

Single file, we followed the narrow pathway. My sister led. Soon, the darkness obscured our ability to see the ground.  To the right the mountain ascended upward and to the left was a drop off.  We knew this because of memory, not sight. We inched our way down the path, my sister calling out when she encountered a rock or root.

When we reached the first switchback, a hairpin in the path reversing our direction, I saw the dark outline of a tree. I grasped it with my right hand. No longer did I have to pay attention to each inch beneath my feet. I confidently placed one foot in front of another.

But soon, I realized I had to let go of my safeguard. Because if I kept holding it, I would not be able to go down the mountain.

Isn’t this the way in life? Whatever we cling onto, that provides the safety and security that we need, we will ultimately have to forfeit because that object or story or person will be what holds us back. 

The lesson for finding work that matters:

You may find yourself clinging to a job or idea of work you want. What if that very notion is holding you back? What if your future work was grander than you can now imagine?

As I was plodded my way down the mountain, my future was ahead. Going back or staying still was not an option. As in life. I let go of the tree and resumed my inching foot steps.

By the time we passed through the next switchback (me being grateful for each tree that held me steady), my quadriceps were rebelling. Muscles quivered from the constant downward pressure. 

In the middle of the path where I could not see very little and I could only hear my sister, I made a decision. I told her, “I am done.” No more walking down this mountain in the dark. The idea was ludicrous. And I hated every minute!

After a few minutes, I reconsidered my plan. Was I going to sit down and wait for the sun to rise? The world was quiet except for my breathing. I contemplated. 12 hours. What would I do? Sleep? Probably not. Imagine every sound was a bear or a cougar? Probably. “I hate this,” I yelled.  Once the echo had died, I said, “Let’s go.”

Nelson and Kootenay River from Pulpit Rock

Nelson and Kootenay River from Pulpit Rock

As I shuffled silently behind my sister, I was thinking of options and how I often talked about how there is always a choice. Spending a night on a mountainside with no gear was an option. But my real decision was how I was going to deal with the situation. I could scream all I wanted, wish I was somewhere (anywhere) else or consider how I might do it differently if I were to start again. 

Between me and anything that I wanted in that particular moment meant going down that mountain first. 

The lesson for finding work that matters:

Where are your options? Like me, are they inside of you? Can you allow space for the brainstorming?

I wish I could tell you that it was all smooth from that point. But my legs shook and I still moved my feet in the tiniest steps I had ever taken in my life. I still hated where I was.

I ignored the fact that one step to the side would mean a tumble. Or we could happen upon a wild animal. 

I just kept moving one foot at a time.

And that is sometimes all that can be done. When I don’t know where I am going (when I was younger I imagined a time in my life when I would have it all figured out) there is nothing left to do but keep moving as mindfully as I can.

The last drop on the path was quite steep. I decided to turn around and descend like I would on a ladder. At the second step I reached my hand onto a rock. I felt squishy. And then an odour. Dog shit.

Yep. Of course.

Because sometimes shit is what life gives you. It doesn’t matter if you have already had a lot of shit or you are too tired for shit.

I reached and felt moss on the side of the path. Nature’s toilet paper. I wiped my hand. In that moment, with no other solution accessible, I appreciated how one presented itself. Not 100%. As soon as I was down that mountain, I was heading for soap and running water. But really, it did the trick.

And sometimes life is like that too. We may not get exactly what we want but you know, when all is said and done, a good-enough fix is all that was needed.

I climbed down the last few steps. And then it was done. No longer was I on the mountain. No longer did I have to be on full alert.

Years later, when someone asked me one of the most courageous things I had ever done, I thought of Elephant Mountain and our descent in the dark. What I learnt is that courage doesn’t look like I imagined. It isn’t about fearlessness. It is about showing up along with the fear. It means keeping moving even though the fear is steady on my heels. It means handling all of the shit that gets in the way and being grateful for the oases that I encounter.

The lesson for finding work that matters:

Any time you are doing something new, fear is not far away. Courage is about how you show up in your life!

For more on lessons from nature, check out this article