Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Outside The Comfort Zone

A good friend who is roughly my age came to visit this morning, fresh from a family ski trip she had been dreading for months. Her husband and teenage sons had booked the holiday for themselves, and at the last minute she surprised herself by insisting on going along with them.

"But you're not into sports!" her sons said. She smiled. "And you can't ski!" her husband reminded her, though he didn't really need to. They'd been skiing before, years earlier, and it had been a disaster.

"If I don't learn now, I never will," she countered.

To make a long story short, she had a blast -- and she can now ski. The best part of the trip was when her three men skied up alongside her and did a double take when they realized who she was. She had exceeded their wildest expectations, but better yet, she had exceeded her own.

"It was so beautiful," she said. "It would have been worth it for that alone. "

A few years back my cousin Bonnie turned fifty. Her son, a university student, told her he had gotten her a surprise birthday present -- something really special.

"Will I like it?" she asked anxiously. There was something about his manner that made her uneasy.

He smiled. "I'm not sure. But you know how you keep saying you're in a rut? That you don't try anything new?"


"Well, this will help you get out of that rut."

Quite understandably, she was filled with foreboding, especially when, on her birthday, she was driven fifty miles out into the desert.

"Mom, lighten up and you'll enjoy it," her son reassured her. "I've already done it, and it's fantastic."

Like most teenage boys, her son is a bungee-jumping daredevil, so this did not make Bonnie feel much better, especially five minutes later when she saw the large sky diving sign. My cousin has terrible acrophobia.

To make a long story short, she went through with it. Got into the airplane, allowed herself to be fitted with a parachute, listened attentively as the instructor ran through the drill. She had to be pushed to the door of the plane, then pushed off, but she let them do it, and no one got injured in the process.

"I was fine once I resigned myself to dying," she confessed. "I told my son that I loved him, and that I forgave him. Then, I really did forgive him when he just laughed at me. I knew that I was jumping to my death. Once I'd gotten past that, I was fine."

I've seen the film of her doing this, and it filled me with respect. You can see her digging her heels into the floor of the plane, almost prying off the hands of those 'helping' her exit the plane. And you can see her face during the jump -- her expression of awe as she hurdles through layers of blue, floating through depths of sky to the glittering desert sands beneath her.

"It was fantastic," she said. "I can't even begin to describe it."

Her son was phenomenally proud of her, of course, but that was as nothing compared to her own sense of pride and accomplishment.

I can't ski, and I've never gone ski-diving, but I too have operated outside my comfort zone: I was a squirrel, or more accurately, an ecureuil. We were visiting friends in France, and with five kids to entertain, chose an adventure playground that had sounded pretty tame: an outside play area with tarzan ropes and steel cables strung from tree to tree that people could swing on. We'd visited similar places in Japan when the kids were tiny, and pictured something even toddlers could handle. Maybe even something I could handle.

Now I'm fine with heights and I love flying, but I'm not fine with the idea of falling and the subsequent trauma involved. It might sound odd, but I don't mind walking across rope bridges and looking down into the gaping gorge below; I just hate the idea of hitting the rocks. I am also woefully uncoordinated, though reasonably fit and strong, and lack a sense of balance. So when I decided to try the squirrel experience, I amazed myself. I let the young French guide fasten me into my safety harness and felt an almost surreal sense of horror: it was bad enough that my kids and husband were going to be doing this, but was I really joining them?

Yes, I was, though as I stood in line, waiting to climb my first tree, I almost felt as though I was already out of my own body.

The trees were almost all three-storey numbers, and the heights were such that if you fell, you knew you wouldn't suffer much: the impact would ensure a swift, though messy, death. All that stood between oneself and The Great Mystery was a worryingly small steel clip, securely fastened to the harness by one end, and to the cable by the other. I know that it was securely fastened because I tested and retested my own -- and my kids' -- by tugging on them as hard as I could. Intellectually I knew that the steel clip was strong enough to hold my weight, but as I soared Tarzan-style from tree to tree, I just knew it was going to snap, causing me to plummet to my untimely and tragic death. But my sturdy little steel clip did not let me down. When we finally left the park, I felt like shaking its hand or embracing it, so deep was my respect and gratitude.

That steel clip supported me as I climbed steeple-high trees, as I teetered along rope ladders that soared over the treetops and merrily bubbling rivers below. It reassured me as I hurled myself at rope nets and struggled to negotiate them, enduring the running commentary of interested young Frenchmen (hope they couldn't understand my English!) and chewed my lip to a pulp as I watched my children soaring along their own cables, at impossible heights.

And when it was all over and my family all rushed to congratulate me, clearly amazed at my bravery, their praise was as nothing next to my own sense of accomplishment.

There is something about getting older that makes us all too prone to be sedentary, to stop trying new things and new sensations. Partly from a horror of becoming too tame and set in our ways, there is also something about the ageing process that makes us want to challenge this awful inertia. The trick is to push ourselves just enough -- to live outside our comfort zone, so to speak and not allow discretion to take over valor entirely. Once in a while, it is good to attempt something so completely out of our range that the thought of it almost takes our breath away.

Speaking of which, my friend who has learned to ski told me that one of her New Year's resolutions is to stop whining. Personally, I'm leaving that one for next year.

I too was up this high! Picture found at the following site:


Kara said...

I went skydiving on the day of my high school graduation. It was glorious. It's clear I'm gonna have to kick it up a notch when I turn 50. Maybe I'll do something COMPLETELY outside of my comfort zone like take a quilting class. The thought makes me shudder.

The Anti-Wife said...

How brave of you - and of your friend. Occasionally I surprise myself by venturing outside my comfort zone. It's always exhilarating, but the sigh of relief when it's over is long and loud.

Some every day things we do push us outside the CZ. For me, because I'm claustrophobic, riding an elevator is way outside but I do it anyway cause I need to get to work.

Another lovely post.

Kim Ayres said...

I think when we refuse to leave our comfort zone is when we have given up on life. All we are doing then is treading water until we die.

Brian said...

I regularly leave my comfort zone-- but it is never physical , merely mental .


Ello said...

That is very cool and very brave. I would definitely do the squirrel thing - it looks really fun. But you will NEVER get me skydiving! And I love skiing even though I'm not very good. I stick to the gentle sloping hills and ski by myself. The one time my hubby took me down the scary hill, I took it on my ass. Unfortunately, here on the east coast, we don't have that nice powder we have nasty ice so it really hurt. But, if I ever get to go skiing in nice white powder, I would be ready for the scary hill!

Church Lady said...

One of my favorite posts by you (although I am new to your blog!).
Good for you for giving this a try. I think going outside your comfort zone filters into other aspects of your life.
I just love the story about your friend who went skydiving. And what a wonderful son she has!

Mary Witzl said...

Kara -- A quilting class would make me shudder too. I joined the church choir one year, and 85% of the mainly elderly lady members scared the hell out of me. I think I'd rather jump out of a plane than watch them sampling a plateful of my oatmeal cookies again; they were that bad.

Anti-wife -- You're right about the relief. After my squirrel experience, I could not get over how elated I was. When I woke up the next day, however, I could barely move, I was so sore. That was tough: we had a river to kayak down.

I sympathize about the elevators and the claustrophobia. When I used to commute every day in Tokyo, I was convinced that the Big One (the next great Kanto earthquake) would hit while I was in the subway. I had to do yoga breathing to keep from having panic attacks over it.

Kim -- I am trying to convince my teenagers of this. They are pretty happy to stay in their comfort zones when they realize that there are drains to clean and trash to be bundled up and taken out. It is only when there is hair-raising stuff on the horizon that they get interested in venturing outside their comfort zones, it seems.

Brian -- I spend a fair amount of time outside my mental comfort zone, too -- mainly late at night when I am worrying about various things. Mental anguish is really worse than physical feats of derring-do such as zipping from tree to tree like Tarzan. Yoga breathing helps me a little, but I have some idea what you are going through.

Ello -- I went skiing once in Japan. I am a wimp, a cheapskate, uncoordinated, and not particularly good in extremes of temperature. Add a propensity to trip even when the ground isn't slippery to that combination, and you have a real skiing clash. The twentieth time I went down, I got tangled up with another beginner and her boyfriend had to come and pull us apart. My long braid froze almost solid, my butt got cold, and I spent a lot of money just to get wet, miserable, and humiliated. I almost cried on the train going home just thinking about how awful it all was. The only good thing about the trip was that I kept my friends well and truly entertained. Catch me doing that again in a hurry. Fortunately, we are now too poor to go skiing so I am spared the indignity.

Church Lady -- My cousin was absolutely convinced that her son was unwittingly leading her to her death. She can laugh about it now, but she felt very concerned at the time, as you can imagine. Her son really is a great kid, though, especially now that he is out out of adolescence. And I give him credit: he really did get her out of her rut.

Eryl Shields said...

The squirrel thing sounds great!

As for leaving my comfort zone, I sang karaoke at my mother-in-law's new year's eve party because my husband refused to, and I didn't want the Moffat branch of the family to completely let her down in front of her friends. I totally can't sing and couldn't keep time with anything except The Sex Pistols' 'Pretty Vacant' which I was able to yell. I had been dreading it but it turned out to be such fun. I'll never mock karaoke again!

-eve- said...

The squirrel place sounds glorious! Would enjoy it very much...

> There is something about getting older that makes us all too prone to be sedentary, to stop trying new things and new sensations. Partly from a horror of becoming too tame and set in our ways, there is also something about the ageing process that makes us want to challenge this awful inertia. The trick is to push ourselves just enough -- to live outside our comfort zone, so to speak and not allow discretion to take over valor entirely. Once in a while, it is good to attempt something so completely out of our range that the thought of it almost takes our breath away.

This is a good reminder. It scares me, the thought of that; that with age, one would become afraid... afraid to try, or to change. Good for you, overcoming that fear! I like that scene you depicted, too, when the friend who couldn't ski finally skied, and her men were proud, thus making her proud...

Christy said...

Well, death will be a new experience but I'm not about to rush toward it. I think I'll stick with Brian and stretch my mind while keeping my body relatively safe.

debra said...

Kudos to you for stretching, Mary.
I don't know if I could sky dive or dangle in mid-air above a snow covered mountain; I have stretched in other ways--that have challenged and changed my way of thinking, of being.
Freeing, actually.

Sam, Problemchildbride said...

Well done, Mary! You must have made your family proud. I'm not one to go flinging myself off stuff either unless it's The Precipice of Common Sense, that is. I've worn a groove in the rock with having to climb back up it so many times only to find myself lying at the bottom again with tweetie-birds and stars round my head.

You're spot on about venturing out from the comfort zone. Sincere kudos to your friend, your cousin and yourself. Merely reading about these exploits gives me a little electric jolt in my spine. I really admire your gumption.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- Good for you! The first time I did karaoke, I believe my heart rate must have hit 150 within thirty seconds. I have fainted in the middle of speeches, so I can imagine just how far out of your comfort zone you ventured.

Eve -- The older we get, the scarier the idea of fractures becomes. This is partly to do with our increasingly robust sense of mortality (which only continues to develop as we age) and partly to do with plain old inertia -- and of course, less dense bone tissue. I think what made me become a squirrel was the sight of all the other resigned looking women holding their kids' hats, mobile phones, etc. I looked at their placid faces and thought 'To hell with that! I'M going to be a squirrel too!'

Of course, I'd be singing a different song if I'd fallen and broken a couple of bones...

Christy -- That is how I feel when I see people bungee jumping, eagerly climbing into particularly nasty roller coaster cars, or flying off ski jumps. I really don't need to risk my neck just to feel that I've lived, and life is short enough as it is. But the squirrel thing was just enough of a challenge for me. Sky diving gave my cousin a much-needed jolt, and skiing reawakened a sense of adventure in my friend. I think all of us can find something to push us just a little and wake us up, though you are right -- it doesn't have to be anything too dare-devil.

Debra -- You are a runner, so you probably don't need to do things like jumping off ski lifts or out of airplanes! You already know what it is like to feel the wind rushing through your hair as your feet pound the earth. Being able to run without tripping myself up or holding up the rear (so mortifying) was always a dream of mine -- and completely unattainable. I do believe that if I had been a runner, I could have rested on my laurels and watched everyone else being squirrels.

Sam -- I shocked the living hell out of my family, actually -- I'm not sure how proud they were. Whenever I caught their eyes on me, they were filled with horrified wonder -- "Will she make it? Will we have to sort our own socks from now on, horror of horrors?"

As for the precipice of common sense, I've flung myself off it often enough. What is awful is imagining my kids doing this now. They've got it all ahead of them, and I'm just hoping they'll manage to scramble back up like I did. Glad to know you've been there too, and thank God we survived.

Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul said...

Whoa! I got vertigo just READING your blog, Mary. You would never catch me that high up! And as for skydiving . . . I don't think I would EVER forgive my son (just in case you're reading this, Tom or Jack)!

Mary Witzl said...

Paul -- I can picture my kids doing something like this for me. With any luck, by the time they have the wherewithal to buy me a caving lesson or a session with an experienced mountain climber or whatever awful thing they might think of, I'll be so whacked out it won't be practical. Plus, I'm changing my will so they won't be tempted to do me in for my money.

Danette Haworth said...

Wonderful and inspirational post, Mary.

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Danette. I just hope my kids never read this one and expect me to go sky diving.

Phil said...

Good for you, Mary. I'm all for trying something new - I just don't have the time whilst I chase around earning the money to allow my children to experience it instead.


Mary Witzl said...

I think this is as close to a midlife crisis as I got, Phil. Plus, we were on vacation, so I didn't really have an excuse for not doing it. And quite honestly, it looked like fun, and I dreaded being a Mum holding someone's sweater...

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Mary Witzl said...

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