Cartwheels, Fear, & Trembling

You can’t tell me who I am. And I can’t tell you who you are.

The burden to understand ourselves is our responsibility alone, but it does not mean you must be alone when trying to understand yourself. Seeking help is a natural part of the process; which is why resisting help (due to pride or fear or vulnerability), in this matter, often looks and feels unnatural.

My daughter just started third grade. She’s going on nine and her personality is coming into full bloom. She’s bright, giggly, and it’s simply a beautiful time to watch her watch the world come alive around her. However, it’s also a time to watch her deal with fear.

She just started gymnastics. She’s only three weeks in and so far she’s been having  a blast; that is until this last week where for the first thirty minutes of the hour-long class, everything appeared to be going well. This would change. She was smiling, laughing, and following instructions with the rest of the ten or so in her group of beginners. But there was something both Z (we’ll call her “Z” for now) and I didn’t know: today was evaluation day. A day where the coaches hold a card and a marker and ask each kid to individually perform the requested technique. These ranged from somersaults to cartwheels to bridges to you name it. It appeared Z wasn’t aware that the evaluations had actually started because when asked to do a somersault (which she did mechanically), it was fine. She performed it well, stood up, then ran round to the back of the line none the wiser. But as she stood in the back she finally took notice of what was actually happening. Next up: Cartwheels. It was now her turn.

I watched from a distance. The group was far enough away for me not to hear what was actually being said. But I didn’t need to hear what was being said. I knew exactly why Z paused, closed her arms across her stomach, and started to cry.

After some verbal coddling from the coach to calm her down, they made their way to me. I received her, got her some tissues and water, and sat her down. I knelt and got down to her level. Tears streaming, snot running, she was a mess. She continued to hold her stomach.

Me: “Did you hurt something?”

Z: “I hurt my stomach doing somersaults.”

This wasn’t true. But we do this, don’t we? When we fine it difficult to admit what really happened we default to solicit sympathy; we become the victim, even if it means lying.

Me: “On a scale of one to ten, how bad does it hurt?”

Z: “Nine.”

Again, we do this. Children especially, and we have to admire how they shoot for the extremes. To say the least, their “truths” are unpretentious. So I had a choice here. I knew that if I suggested we leave, get ice cream, and then go home that that would be an easy fix. I had that thought because that’s how I remember being treated when I defaulted to ‘victim mode’ as a child. I decided to go the more challenging route.

Me: “I think your stomach is fine. I think you’re upset because you don’t know how to do a cartwheel yet…”

Z: (silence).

Me: (I smile) “…And that’s the fun part. You see, there was a time when you didn’t know how to do somersault, right?”

Z: (eye brows lift).

Me: “And you’re the master of somersaults now. You see?”

In truth, my pep-talk only kind of worked. She did calm down and agreed to finish the class on the condition that she’s not asked to perform for the remainder of the class. And as much as I wanted her to have that Disney moment where she walks out there and just tries (whether or not she succeeds), part of her own will needed to be experienced and realized. She went back out, sat next to the evaluation coach, and her whole countenance changed. She was back to her giggly, happy self. Giggly and happy because she was asked to help the coach. I then remembered that this is a big part of who Z is: She loves to help.

The coaches spoke to me briefly after the class and didn’t know that it was only Z’s third week, and wouldn’t of asked her to perform said techniques. I told them it was fine and thanked them for how well they handled the whole situation.

As a parent there’s a lot one must accept. I can certainly know Z’s fear , but she’s the one who has to feel it and experience it — and I have to allow that. The worst thing I could do is get in the way of her feeling inadequate, humiliated, or even scared. These are ingredients she needs to become herself. No doubt she observes how I respond to these things and that will hopefully serve as a positive model that’s bound to naturally rub off (I’m hoping). But ultimately, her salvation, that is, becoming who she is, must be worked out with fear and trembling. I can exhaustively model who or what she could be like, but I can’t tell her who she is. I can tell her “You have what it takes” or “Have courage” or “Don’t give up!”, and I do, because I also have to tell myself these things. Regularly.

Z, for better or worse, is a born perfectionist. The sour side to that is that RIGHT NOW she’s not willing to fail or look stupid at the cost of learning something. On the nurture side of this perspective she’s been an only child. She’s seen mom and dad competently perform tasks for years. But she wasn’t around to watch us learn them. That might be one of the benefits of having siblings; you get to watch each other clumsily learn a new skill and inadvertently agree that that’s okay.

This being said, what’s your Cartwheel? What’s the thing that’s limiting you from growth, and therefore limiting you from understanding who you are a little better?


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