Standing on a Cliff

I kneeled down, tried to breath, the inhalations shallow, not quite a gasp, but almost.

The guide turned, called back to me, “Are you okay?”

A partial truth, I yelled back: “Yes.”

I felt dizzy, like I might fall. This was not a good thing. I stood on a narrow trail, cliffs leering at me on both sides; two huge drops down a mountain. Daunting.   

Physically I was fine. Having been an athlete my whole life, the hike I was on in the mountains of the Sonora Desert in Arizona, physically was not a problem. In fact, to the contrary, I felt invigorated, amazing, alive. To be out in such open nature, having only my legs and a backpack of water and granola bars to depend on, this was the type of challenge I thrived on.

Still kneeling, I knew I had two choices: keep going, or turn around and go back before the cliffs hung deeper.

I contemplated. Normally, in a quandary I am likely to ruminate. But there wasn’t time for that. The group waited. I had to decide.

I thought about one of my favorite string of words: Push past your comfort zone.

The words echoed in my mind.

Push past your comfort zone. This is a string of words I am accustomed to. Suffice it to say it is a bit of a personal mantra, an important one, maybe the most important one.

Why? One of my most used words. As a psychologist, I am always looking for the Whys?

So why?

I used to think it was simply restlessness, that I sat trapped in a world where security and safety tempered my adventurous spirit, that I had a problem being in the moment, that I was anxious, unsatisfied. But maturity, self-reflection and life experience has shown me something very different.  

I am restless. There is no way around this: I am restless. And this restlessness propels me forward, gets me looking for new ways to push past my comfort zone. Stagnation feels like a psychological death. My spirit will wither up and die, become nothing, know nothing, feel nothing. I must try new things to feel alive, to experience life, to live.

But it’s more than that.

Like so many things in my life running has taught me the real reason we all need to push past our comfort zone. And it is something I have been doing in one way or another for most of my life. Not because I am so much of a risk taker, which inadvertently, I guess I am. But I don’t push past my comfort zone for the risk, but rather because of the value, the meaning in it.

If we don’t push past our comfort zone, we stay in the same place. Like a treadmill, we go forward, but don’t get anywhere. We move but stay in the same place simultaneously.

I believe that value and meaning come from moving forward, taking chances, doing things that are uncomfortable, getting off the monotony of the treadmill and doing something new, something different.

 It’s not about success or failure, either. It’s about the action of going toward something you want, but are afraid of.

I have found meaning in athletics, running marathons, going further, faster, pushing through the discomfort and sometimes pain to reach new levels both physically and spiritually.

I also find this through writing. Writing is exposing. And if you want to write well you have no choice but to be uncomfortable at times. In my most recent book, and my first work of fiction, there were some sex scenes that needed to be written in. It’s where the narrative needed to go for the story to be told. A story about obsessive love, passion driven by sex, love turning to hate, resulting in murder needed some sex scenes to make the writing authentic. In my mind the story would have been less than true, if I left these scenes out because they made me uncomfortable.

Even though it was my characters who stood naked in the story, I felt exposed, bare, vulnerable as I was writing. And now that people are reading it, I feel even barer.

But we don’t write well if we always sit comfortably. People want to read stories that move them, excite them, stories that tap into some truth about life through the narrative. Readers want stories that resonate. It is the job of writers to be open, honest, exposed and give this to readers.

It doesn’t have to be running and/or writing. We all have the opportunity every day to push past our comfort zones and it doesn’t have to be standing on the edge of a cliff or running a marathon in a monsoon (one of my greatest feats).

When we tell someone how we feel, when we open ourselves to others, talk to new people, different people, when we finally enroll in that class we’ve always wanted to take, try that new hobby, apply for that new job, start that new exercise program.

It has been my experience from talking to people that everyone has something that they wish they could do, or want to try, but have all kinds of excuses. You have to ask yourself, really asking yourself, honestly, if it is fear that’s behind these excuses. And if it is, then you want to really try pushing out of your comfort zone.

Many things in life (falling in love, is a good example) which are hard and uncomfortable hold great value, will enrich your life, give you reasons to live. These are things that make you realize that there is more to life than the day-to-day tedium we sometimes get caught up in.

Child birth perhaps is the ultimate example of the value of discomfort.

So…I stood on that narrow trail, two cliffs hung on either side as my mantra played in my mind. I remembered how hard those last three miles of the New York City Marathon were, and how I resolved to finish. And did. I thought of all the people who I encourage to push past their comfort zone, to keep going even when it’s hard, to find value in the endeavor, to find meaning in the experience. I had to keep going.

The guide called down again, “Are you sure you’re okay?”

I yelled back, “Yes. Coming.” I stood, looked straight ahead at the trail, kept my head forward, focused on each step, created a rhythm and hiked up the mountain.

I hiked to the top, stood awe-stricken as the huge desert sun was setting, sinking into a mesmerizing mix of red and pink and blue and purple before it disappeared replaced by the quiet darkness of night. We hiked back down. I felt so alive.

Truth be told: this was not an easy hike for me. And truth be told: it was well worth it.

I highly recommend leaving your comfort zone. Not everything that’s worth it is going to be easy.