I was the most timid of children, shy and unwilling to jump into physical activities where I'd look especially clumsy or unskilled — two words that were actually very accurate descriptions of me.
I'd fake a sprained ankle before I'd step into the fray of competitive sports. And when teams formed for street games, I usually remembered somewhere else I needed to be right away. At school, where physical education forced everyone to play, I resigned myself to being the last one chosen and hoped that would translate to running out of time before my turn came. I suspect my teammates had similar yearnings.
Oddly, though, I was great with any academic challenge. If there was a formula for it or a book attached to it, I'd dive right in.
When I was a teenager, I was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect, cured by heart surgery. By then, though, I was so far behind in developing basic physical skills that I never really caught up. You can fix a medical issue and still be plagued with the chronic condition that is lack of confidence.
The result for me was an impressive list of skills not being developed, tasks untried and joy deferred. My talents had developed elsewhere; physical activity would always be a second language with which I struggled, not a native tongue.
I had to grow up emotionally to realize that you don't have to be outstanding at something to enjoy it. That it's OK, in fact, to be rather bad at something if the company's congenial and you're having fun.
My baby step in that direction took me through the door of a small airplane in mid-flight and down thousands of feet at a breakneck pace in what was then a fairly new form of skydiving: the tandem dive. I had been talked into jumping for a story, and I prayed as I got into position at the door, terrified but oddly determined just to do it.
Like so many things in life, it wasn't what I expected at all.
Strapped to my instructor, hurtling through space, I found myself not terrified, as I'd expected, but instead oddly interested in how dropping created a kind of air cushion. I remember wondering what else I had missed, held back by my mental "what-ifs." What if I get hurt? What if I look stupid? What if people laugh?
They should have been "so-whats".
In the years that have passed since I took that dive, I have learned to swim adequately if not proficiently. I have played softball for the pleasure of the camaraderie, though my skills are actively unimpressive. I am capable of joining a line dance because it looks fun, unfazed that others, including very small children, do it better.
Every new year, people make resolutions. I stole my perpetual resolution a couple of decades ago from a man named Leo who woke up at age 54 and said, "I can't read. I'm going to learn how." I met him through Literacy Volunteers of America.Comment on this story
He had decided, he said, to participate more fully in his own life and that of the people around him. To do that, he needed to know how to read. Taking that first step must have been hard.
He'd spent decades trying to disguise what he didn't know before he decided to go for it.
That's the attitude I want to take into this new year and all the ones that follow it. It's what you don't yet know that leads to the next frontier.