It started with the rope.
Maybe you remember what I’m talking about, if you took grade-school PE in the 1970s and 1980s. The long floor-to-ceiling rope in the gymnasium, suspended over a safety mat. The one that students were expected to climb like Tarzan at some point in their elementary school careers.
Correction. The one that most students were expected to climb. I was given an exemption because, well, childhood epilepsy and dangling from a line like Spider-Man don’t mix really well.
Danger anticipated. Danger avoided.
Now fast-forward several years to junior high school. Specifically, to the various track-and-field games in gym. Unlike ropes, long jumps were perfectly safe for an epileptic and I tried over and over again with all the enthusiasm that a nerdy and awkward adolescent could manage.
Maybe a little too much enthusiasm. The sore feet I had after class didn’t go away. It turned out that between that, and maybe some after-school martial arts classes, I had managed to break the growth plates in both my feet.
Danger not even considered.
So what’s the point of all this rambling, besides setting the stage for the Totally-Not-Plagiarized-Diaries-of-a-Sorta-Wimpy-And-In-No-Way-Copyright-Infringing Kid? Well, to start with, it never hurts to remember the limits of our expectations – how, as the adage goes, we don’t know what we don’t know. For all that we plan and foresee and calculate, some things simply aren’t on the radar because we didn’t know to put them there.
But oh, do we try. Especially at the New Year.
The fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett had characters who were drawn to “edge places,” points where two states of being come together, like doors, or masks, or mirrors, or even theatres. Similarly, something about the boundary between an old year and a new one draws us. It’s a time when we look back and look forward, when writers everywhere compile their “10 best” and “10 worst” lists, when we try to anticipate what’s next – aside from freezing weather and drivers who shouldn’t be on the roads, of course.
I don’t want to make this sound too idealistic. Many years, the look back is on the level of “Thank heaven THAT’s over” and the look ahead is more like “Well, it can’t be as bad as what we just went through.” But we still like to think we have some sort of control over the outcome. That’s why we make resolutions, right?
We like to think that. Until we get sore feet.
As some of you know, this last year for me has gone beyond unpredictable. It’s had some amazing joys and some crushing blows, and my regular readers have experienced many of them with me. And one of the most challenging lessons I’ve had to take from all of it is that there is only so much I can do.
That’s not the same as saying “There’s nothing I can do.” That’s a trap. Saying “I can’t do everything” isn’t the same as saying “I can’t do anything.” Hope demands effort, otherwise it’s nothing more than an optimistic dream.
But we do have to accept that we’re not the ones in the driver’s seat.
And that’s hard.
We can prepare. We can anticipate. We can make the most of our chances. We can set ourselves up really, really well. But some things will always be out of our control.
In an odd way, though, that can be kind of hopeful.
It means that we don’t have to blame ourselves for every catastrophe in life. Not as much as we want to.
It means that totally unexpected blessings can find us in life. However undeserving of them we may feel personally.
It means we can let ourselves heal. And wonder. And grow.
And that we can reach out to each other as we do so.
Keep reaching. Keep growing. Take the pains and the wonders of this new year as they come. And where you can act, do it with hope.
After all, it never hurts to know the ropes.