I went spelunking with my Boy Scouts this weekend.
We explored a small cave in central Texas, spending ninety minutes or so underground with a guide, squeezing ourselves into spaces mostly too small to stand up, crawling on hands and knees and occasionally bellies to explore the muddy, fascinating structures formed by the drip of water through the rock. I don’t think we were ever more than twenty feet below the surface.
I found it terrifying. I couldn’t shake the thought of the hundreds of tons of rock over our heads, couldn’t stop myself from wondering what would happen if an earthquake or a flood or some other catastrophe occurred while we were down there. It wasn’t a rational fear; if there were any significant danger, the tour company wouldn’t take people through the caves. But that didn’t help much.
I think I did a pretty good job concealing my fear; my son knew I was having a hard time, but I don’t think any of the others did. Even in the couple of moments I came near panic trying to squeeze through particularly tight spaces, I think I managed to keep my expression more or less even.
Then came the exit.
We had a choice in how we exited the cave: we could go out the way we came in, shimmying sideways through a crack barely big enough for an adult but open to the sky above; or we could take the chimney, a narrow passage through which we would have to climb about ten feet to reach the daylight.
It took me a minute or two to decide which way to go. Or at least to admit my decision. I badly wanted to go out the way we had come in, the easier, more familiar way. But the chimney scared me more, so it was the clear choice. My son gave me a high five when I announced my decision, and reminded me the only way to overcome fear is to push through it.
Sometimes, studying courage can be a real pain.
I made it out without incident, of course, and felt a thrill at the victory. I wasn’t the only one–almost all the Scouts who went down into that cave had to deal with some fear or other, whether it was tight spaces or bugs or just the idea of not being in control for a little while. And all of us got a victory from the experience. Most of the Scouts agreed it was one of their favorite outings.
It got me thinking about the choices we make. So many of us, myself included, go through life making exactly the opposite choices from the one I made in the cave: faced with two options, we take the one that is less scary to us, the one that’s more familiar, more stable. We choose the path we know we can handle. And we find examples to reinforce our choices, pointing out people who chose the harder way and lost everything for it.
But what if we could go through life choosing the hard way more often? What if every now and then we could deliberately, intentionally, choose the path we were less sure of? What if we spent our time finding examples of people who chose the hard way and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, or even came well short of their wildest dreams but still succeeded? What if we could embrace the hard way as a way of life–not out of some masochistic desire to make life more difficult, but just to make sure we’re focused on making ourselves better?
Here’s what I know: if we always keep to the familiar, easy paths, it will be very hard to become more than we are.
As to the rest, I’ll let you know. Will you come with me?