Maybe you’re the sort of person who acts first and thinks later, in which case I envy you. Before I accept a challenge I usually mull it over in my head for hours, days, or weeks. Eventually I’ve thought about it for so long I’ve nearly beaten the risk right out of it. Which, I suppose, is why I do it. If I can imagine every possible scenario, calcuating ahead of time how things might go, then I’ve reduced the chances of a bad outcome. Or so I tell myself. Micah says I missed my true calling,“You should have gone into risk assessment.”
On our recent trip to Germany I faced a difficult decision: to go nude in the coed thermal baths or not to go nude, that was the question (read this New York Times article for a male perspective on the experience). I’d gone nude in a room full of people before, but they were all women. Back in seminary, a friend introduced me to Japanese communal baths. Women of all shapes, colors, and sizes meandered from hot pool to cold plunge, from sauna to steam room. We exfoliated and reclined. It was a place for letting it all hang out, not just breasts but tension and insecurities, too. The prospect, however, of doing this in the presence of men made me uneasy. I knew the space was safe, and intended to be a therapeutic spa experience, but it was far outside my comfort zone. In the months leading up to our trip I weighed whether or not this was a challenge I would accept. A small knot of anxiety formed in my chest each time I contemplated it.
Now, it's not as if my challenge was a life or death situation (unless one considers the potential death of my modesty, or in the most dire of circumstances, the undoing of my self-esteem). I know there are far braver souls in the world taking on more serious challenges. In Switzerland, Micah and I hiked the North Face trail. The trail stretches across an alp that is directly across from the Eiger, known for its famous North Face. On the trail we passed markers which told the stories of the mostly failed and deadly attempts of climbers who tried to summit it. I read the accounts of these individuals, mystified by anyone who would attempt something so dangerous.
It's the same feeling I get when I sit in the Arts and Science auditorium on the University of Wyoming campus watching the Banff Mountain Film Festival. Rock climbers, downhill skiers, mountain bikers, and others push the limits. I'm not surprised to learn that individuals walk away from the night inspired to leave their 9-to-5's. Watching other people journey into the unknown, face down challenges, and have the adventure of a lifetime is bound to light a fire under somebody's ass. Even mine.
I finally decided to say, "Yes," to the nude coed German thermal baths. In the end, I knew the feeling of disappointment I'd feel for not having done it would be stronger than the fear of being naked in public. I also thought I might get away with wrapping myself in a towel for most of the three hour treatment. That is, until a female spa attendant shouted at me, "You don't need the towel!" and grabbed it from me. There was nothing left to hide behind. And that's precisely what made it so cathartic. Some people scale a mountain peak to know what they are made of. Me, I took my clothes off and ventured into a room full of strangers. There I discovered that I am braver and stronger than I thought.
I suspect this is why we do it, face challenges that scare the shit out of us. Because in doing so our sense of self expands. We quite literally grow into a risky situation, feeling more and more confident with each naked step.
I wonder, what challenge have you faced (or are contemplating facing) that made you feel braver and stronger?