My family recently became members at the local YMCA. The timing of this decision coincided with the onslaught of winter weather that drives many of us indoors for exercise as well as the New Year, which brings additional folks to the gym with new tennis shoes and big dreams. I’m a fan of dreamers so I’m happy to share the treadmill. (Really, I’m just happy to get off the treadmill).
The YMCA may not be known as a fancy gym, but so far, it feels like a tiny piece of luxury to me. I walk into this building and am immediately greeted by a table of free coffee and friendly faces. There is a gym and an indoor track and the most up to date elliptical machines on the market that I have no idea how to use. There is a heated, indoor pool and a steam room in the locker room. If you go in the steam room and close your eyes, it is not too hard to convince yourself that you might be at a spa. There are laundered towels for your use and when you are finished with them, they wash them for you. And to top it all off, there is a magic room called The Hub where you can bring your kids to play while you work out. The Hub has a pool table, air hockey, Foosball, crafts, gym equipment, video games, and what has become the crown jewel for our boys, a rock climbing wall.
Our family has zero experience with rock climbing but plenty of experience with fearing heights. In the past month, I’ve watched my boys work towards overcoming their respective fears and impulses on this wall. Each time they climb, they latch on their gear, wait for their belayer to do the same, and then ask the following required questions:
“Am I safe? “
“Can I climb?”
When you are about to climb a rock wall, and another person is holding your entire weight in their hands, you want that first question to be met with a resounding yes. Yes, you are safe. I won’t drop you, I won’t let you fall, this equipment won’t fail. And of course, that is exactly what the belayer answers after this vocal cue to check and recheck the equipment. Yes, you’re safe. That’s always his answer.
But my mama heart knows that answer is not the whole truth. It knows there is no circumstance in which the question of safety is met with absolute assurance. Just as I know that there is always a chance that the roller coaster could malfunction, or the fresh spinach could harbor salmonella, or the tick bite might result in Lyme disease or my son’s heart might get broken, I know the rope can fail. We live in a culture obsessed with safety, and while that obsession has led to innovative solutions to every day dangers (a sincere thank you inventor of the seatbelt), it has also led to an increasingly sterile approach to life. When we start to believe that we can make all parts of life safe, that we can outsmart risk and danger at every turn, we stop participating in the parts of life that we view as still inherently risky. The parts we haven’t solved yet. But the truth is, it’s all a little risky. This life is risky, from the precarious act of conception to our final breaths.
But can I climb?
Acknowledging and accepting that there is risk, that I might not be safe, can I still climb?
Yes. Yes son, you can climb. Please climb that wall. Please assess the risk and make sure you’ve taken all the appropriate precautions. Please listen to the mentors ahead of you on your path and please check your impulses before proceeding. But once you’ve done those things, it’s time to climb. Climb even though you might lose your footing, or get a little hurt in the ascent. Ask her even though she might say no, or worse, she might say yes and then break your heart. Write it even though you might receive more rejection letters than you do junk mail. Travel even though you might lose your luggage or your passport. Offer support and hope even though your actions might feel meaningless or your compassion taken advantage of. Hike in the woods with the snakes and gaze at the stars with the mosquitoes and love deeply and dare bravely, because even though safety is never a guarantee, what is guaranteed to us all is a finish line. So in the meantime, yes. Yes, you can climb.