Saturday, I met up with a close friend for a little paddleboarding on Smith Mountain Lake. We went once a couple of years before and had a blast so, when she and her family were returning to the lake on a weekend I was available, we jumped on a reprise.
After a couple of weeks of getting used to being covered in a sheen of sweat even in the moments after getting out of the shower, the cool breeze of Saturday morning was a little shocking and I gave a moment of thought to wearing my cardigan under my life jacket. Happily, I did not.
We checked in, got our boards, and quickly noticed that the cool breeze was more of a sharp wind. It was rippling the water in choppy, short peaks and pushing us out toward the lake even as we attempted to paddle into the wind and toward a protected inlet where we hoped to take a few minutes to more fully acclimate to the boards.
It had probably been 20 or so minutes before we realized that, despite our best efforts, the wind was just pushing us farther and farther into the lake. We began to wonder how we would be able to get back to the marina to return the boards, to return ourselves. We tried paddling closer to the shore; we tried sitting to paddle. We considered climbing ashore and walking the much longer distance back, traversing wooded areas and peoples’ yards. Ultimately, my friend jumped into the water and began swimming her board closer to the shore where she could experiment with walking in the shallows; I soon followed suit.
For the next hour, we alternated between swimming and walking our boards along the slimy lakebed stones while people on the shore, bobbing in docked boats, and cruising by on jet skis watched us with confused interest. We maintained a blend of frustration – with our situation and the life jackets that pressed into our throats and chaffed our armpits – and levity. We laughed a lot. We mocked our situation and created games that kept us moving.
Neither of us swim often and by the time we completed our hour-long swim back to the marina (well, to a dock close enough to make do) we were winded, a little loopy, and pretty seriously done with the whole thing.
An hour later, we were both revived by the grilled lunch her dad made, and a check-in Sunday found us both delighted to have somehow avoided the sore muscle fatigue we expected.
“This is 40,” I texted with an emoji of a hand throwing the horns. She responded with an emoji of a muscled arm flexing.
So, is this a story of a day gone awry or a story of a fiasco with a pleasing ending?
It’s not a frivolous question; it’s a question that gives us the power, each and every day, to frame our experience and, in that way, our understanding of the world.
If it’s a day gone awry, then the fear of powerlessness that we each felt upon realizing our inability to paddle against the wind comes to the forefront. It reinforces a belief that adventures are dangerous, perhaps too dangerous to pursue. It feeds the gremlin voice that says, “Nothing ever goes the way I want it to.” That gremlin loves words like never and always.
If it’s a fiasco-gone-good, then it’s a story of resilience. It’s a story of successfully troubleshooting an unanticipated and, arguably, somewhat dangerous difficulty. It buoys the empowered part of ourselves, the parts of us that are strong mentally, emotionally, and even physically. It becomes a funny anecdote to add to a list of tight spots she and I have gotten ourselves into over our decades-long friendship.
I’m not suggesting painting sunshine and unicorn kisses over the difficulties of the day. We each have a deeper appreciation for life jackets, even with the way they chaffed and rubbed. We have a greater understanding of the conditions to consider when hitting the water. And I, for one, will finally be purchasing a dry bag so that I can have a cell phone and other safety gear with me.
What I am suggesting is that challenges are inevitable in this life. We only add to the discomfort of those challenges when we rail against their inevitability, when we believe the myth that we should always experience smooth sailing, er, paddling. When we focus our precious attention on our frustration that challenges exist, we don’t ease difficulties; in fact, all we do is rob ourselves of joy.