We all have some kind of mountain in front of us. Some are small, some a large, and then there are ranges of mountains that we face. But what does it actually take to get past them?
Where do you want to go?
Everyday we have the opportunity to engage which direction we want to go in different aspects of our life - relationships, vocation, personal growth, etc. The possibilities of where to direct our focus are endless. Part of life is simply deciding where we want to go.
Over the course of my life I've wanted to do, achieve and be many things. In my schooling years I wanted to be an architect, archaeologist, philologist. I also wanted to be a heart throb (didn't every young man?), popular, accepted, and on the varsity team for whatever would sate my desire for accomplishment. Oh, and I wanted to be a good brother, son and potential boyfriend.
But each avenue of desire required its own focus and intentionality backed by consistent effort and dedication. I couldn't possibly focus on everything. And when I began to understand that I did what most people do - nothing at all.
If you picture a lion tamer in the center ring of a circus, often we think of a person holding a whip and a chair held by its back with legs facing outward. Whips are effective because they're a tool used to enforce order through the pain of the strikes or the fright of the sharp noise. But why the heck do they use a chair? The lion sees each leg of the chair as a different threat and paralyzes its decision making process. Oddly, the chair is the more effective tool over the whip.
What's keeping me in line?
The difficulty of choosing where to go is the one thing that defeats most people before they get started. After all, there is so much a person could do. And as functioning adults there is a ton of pressure to do things well.
Disapproval, criticism, unwarranted opinion, artificial standards, low self-esteem, - they're metaphorical whips. The application hurts almost as much as the fear we feel by observing it around us via other people or media. I think that's why social media is so popular. We get to observe, with little risk of investment, those who dare to choose a hill to die on. Movies, too, keep our attention because we relate to the characters as they navigate the growing pains of moving towards the climax of the story. But in movies and the stories of other people, the adventure of their story comes from watching their ascent of a mountain that's already been chosen. Sometimes the mountain is the comedy of Will Ferrell acquiring a step brother, other times the mountain is Ben Stiller choosing to challenge his mundane life by risking everything.
The deception, however, is in the subtle effectiveness of how we can subconsciously and so easily decide not to choose our own mountains. After all, it's far easier to observe the drama of someone else chasing the dreams and things we want for our own life.
"I hate my job... but I don't want to risk financial security and knowing what to expect for something I might enjoy doing differently."
"I hate my relationship... but it's impossible to find someone that is healthy for me."
"I don't know which school to choose... and they're all so expensive and I'm not sure if it's what I really want to do."
"I want to start a business... but I don't know how to, I don't feel like I'm qualified and it's not the right economic climate right now anyway."
Excuses are the way we rationalize our response to 'whips'. They keep us in line and prevent us from making decisions we should and want to make. Frequently, our excuses can be mountains that we quickly rationalize our way out of addressing. We can blame and defer accountability to people, places and circumstances which further cements our stagnation.
But man... the crazy thing is that nobody can climb our mountains but us. So why do we blame other people for them? Why do we allow circumstances to choose our mountains for us? Why do we feel so powerless?
The result of this 'powerlessness' is anger. We get hot and motivated when we know that something isn't right and something is in our way or if we realize we're climbing someone else's mountain. That fight-response is designed to give us the gusto to face our challenges. But we have a tendency to direct that energy towards blame. It's easy and with more instant-gratification. It's something that doesn't challenge us because, after all, other people or circumstances are why I can't climb my mountain, right?
Looking for a party
There once was an experiment where five monkeys were placed in an enclosure with a fixture at the center. Researchers would deposit bananas atop the fixture in order to entice the monkeys to retrieve them. Each time a monkey would attempt to climb the fixture for a banana, they were met with a high-powered water hose. Gradually, the monkeys as a collective learned that if they didn't pursue the bananas they wouldn't get hosed.
The next week one monkey was removed and a new monkey was added to the troupe. As you'd expect, the new monkey would see the bananas and attempt to retrieve them. In response, the rest of the monkeys would yell, scream, grab - anything to deter the new monkey from getting hosed.
After five weeks had passed, the enclosure was inhabited by five monkeys who had never been hosed but had been behaviorally whipped into believing that, for some reason, the bananas were off limits.
One could argue that this dynamic can be both healthy and unhealthy depending on the situation; but what I want to highlight is that environment - both people and circumstances - has a direct effect on why you're allowing and enforcing specific behaviors.
Are you being held back from experiencing the possibility of hurt or growth by the influence of others?
Are you responsible for holding others back based on your own encounters with pain whether assumed or actual?
In the series Glee (my wife and I both love musicals!), the main protagonist meets a woman with severe OCD. The way he engages her enables her anxiety even though his intentions are pure. Something happens, they break up, and the woman begins dating another man who engages her OCD in a different way. Much to main-dude's chagrin, his ex-girlfriend's anxiety begins to abate.
The point I'm trying to make is that it's easy to go on the way that we are in an environment that doesn't challenge us in healthy ways. Wound-licking, people pleasing and gossiping environments almost invariably prevent us from choosing which mountains to climb much less taking steps towards doing so.
Why the small step of beginning is more important than the big step of moving forward
It's super-easy to get caught up in the paralysis of deciding what to do when it's reinforced by our surroundings and especially when our surroundings support us with pure-but-wrong intentions. Oh, and then there's the doubt, the criticism, the lack of approval, and the shaming we can sometimes endure when doing something new.
It's simply overwhelming. So what do we do?
My wife recently commented on how unkept a portion of our home's exterior felt. The previous owners had put down some mulch and a hodge-podge of plants and, well... it just looked messy. If you own a home or have ever done a project for a home, you know that any project is always going to take more effort than you thought and cost more money than expected.
As one of my primary love languages is service, my mind immediately jumps into action thinking of different ways to 'fix the problem'. As I was thinking, several objections to my desire to take action popped up:
Our budget is $0
I've never built a retaining wall
I don't have the right tools
It's going to take a lot of time
It looks like a big project
I could do a half-hearted job
...but I'll know I could have done better and will regret doing it in the first place
I'm probably going to do a poor job and people will think I'm a failure
What am I doing? Let's just leave it as it is.
Does that process sound familiar? I looked at the 'facts' which developed into bigger objections and quickly turned into assumption about the outcome if I had risked taking action. Ultimately, I was faced with feeling defeated before I began or decided to move forward anyway because my initial impetus was worth more to me than the objections.
I made the decision to do something - even if the realistic result didn't match what I had imagined.
So, I got some railroad ties and got to work. And it was definitely work!
Obstacle 1: Leveling and placement (patience, endurance and frustration)
Each railroad tie was about 200lbs and getting them into place and stacked three-units high was a feat. If you've never had experience using ties like these, none of them are level; in fact, most were warped, cracked or had inconsistencies in the w/h/d. Getting them level was a pain exacerbated by the fact that I had forgotten to use gravel initially which necessitated taking each tie down to re-establish the leveling foundation. Ugh.
Obstacle 2: Chainsaw (knowledge and frustration)
I borrowed an electric chainsaw and attempted to cut the joints in the wall at a 45 degree angle. But when you've never used a chainsaw, you don't know that it needs oil. It took three full batteries and an hour to cut through just one of the six ties.
Obstacle 3: Rebar (problem solving)
In order to secure the ties, I elected to use two rods of rebar driven through vertical holes drilled at 1/3 the length from either side of the ties. The freakin' drill bit kept getting stuck and I ended up snapping one. I also had to adjust my tools and use a higher amp drill. Also, if you don't use a corkscrew style bit, it's necessary to pull the bit out of the hole to relieve some of the pressure of the shavings. Otherwise, the bit gets stuck.
Oh, I forgot to mention that I initially attempted to simply measure where to drill the holes in each tie, top to bottom, and did not account for the fact that my angle was going to be off by drilling downward without a mount of some sort. After all of the work had been done I had to re-evaluate my method and decided to drill through one tie into the top of another as a marker.
Obstacle 4: Leaning (responding to imperfection)
Once the rebar was in place, I discovered that the MAIN WALL (*screams internally*) was leaning outward. I bought some 10" premium wood screws which definitely pulled the wall flush with the others... but the screws got stuck, stripped and would not come out or go deeper. I had 8 screws 2-3 inches exposed. I got frustrated and just began smacking them with a hammer to bend them inward. "Let's just move on," I told myself.
Obstacle 5: Fill dirt (overwhelmed and discouraged)
Here's where I started to realize how much more of a task this project was going to be from what I had initially expected. I had 9 cubic yards of fill dirt delivered. It was exciting yet made me die a little inside seeing that mountain of dirt being dumped on the driveway in front of our garage. The realization hit me that if I didn't move the dirt nobody would. After all, it was my dirt.
The pile sat there for about a week before I was able to make time for it. When the time came, I got to work. One shovel, two, three... forty. Wheel barrel after wheel barrel steadily chipped away at the pile.
It was a mindless routine and I found myself just picking away while listening to whatever Pandora/Spotify had for me. On day three of working at it I asked God, "Would you please talk to me about what I'm doing with my life? It feels like I'm spinning my wheels and not really doing anything... ugh, God I'm so annoyed with this dirt. It feels like it's never gonna get done. I feel so overwhelmed by it. Why did I even start this stupid project?" (For those of you who don't know my story, I was talking specifically about my life coaching with Break the Meta and the coaching broadcast I do with Thought Raid.)
I didn't hear anything initially and just kept working. Then I suddenly felt God tell me that 'all you have to do is not give up and be consistent. Every shovel-full has it's own impact.'
The impact of small steps
It's easy to underestimate small steps. Especially when those steps are the first steps.
Our culture is much like the monkey experiment where we are deceived into believing that other people's results should be our process and that things should happen in a very specific, generalized way. But much like our relationship with God, the idiosyncrasies of our climb are unique to us and can't be fashioned by the approval or criticism of our environment. It's also imperative that we realize that our 'dirt' is our responsibility to move and getting frustrated that other people aren't accountable for our lives will only stymie our efforts to grow.
Each obstacle I faced while building that retaining wall provided an opportunity for something in me to be challenged. In each instance, I had to take a small step, learn something, take another step, learn something. With each step I had to pay a little bit more than I expected, put in a little more effort than I thought I had to, and it took more steps than I rationalized it should take. I'm still finishing up the wall as we speak but each obstacle has been rewarding because I'm choosing to find the serendipitous value instead of complaining about my circumstances.
God has a knack for teaching you things along the way if you're open to it. He doesn't expect you to arrive to your destination before showing you the life, the value, the fun, the excitement of moving forward. And friends, that takes all of the pressure off when you think alternatively that you have to be perfectly prepared to navigate uncharted territory flawlessly.
You simply have to begin knowing that the process is going to be messy and that you are the only one responsible for the decision to move. When you decide on a course of action you may think that your chosen pursuit is singular - that you're only accomplishing one of the many things you think you need/want to change. But the character of growth is that it bleeds over into every facet of your life.
Pace yourself and keep taking small steps that you know you need to take. Don't give up. Don't quit. Each step builds confidence in knowing who you are. Challenge God to show you where He is, what He's doing, what He's thinking, and what He thinks of you in moments when you're feeling challenged.
And keep going. You'll get where you want to go. It may take a little longer than you or the world may expect because there are some things you're meant to stop and experience along the way.