I did a hard thing today.
While my family was on a long nature hike, I spotted one of those free-standing climbing ropes meant for athletes who are doing intensive training. It had no footholds or knots; just solid rope from top to bottom, suspended from a tall metal structure.
I casually mentioned to my daughter that I once climbed one of those ropes.
She looked at me and asked, "Do you want to climb this one, Mama?"
Here's the thing: I was 10 years old when I climbed the last one. I was only two years older than my child is now...and let's be real, she's a LOT closer to 10 than I am. I was 10 years old 37 years ago.
I looked up at the rope today and thought, "I don't think so!"
And then I remembered my 10-year-old self standing in my school's gymnasium at the base of a tall rope a lot like this one (except for THAT one had knots and footholds).
I also remembered my 10-year-od self thinking, “I don’t think so,” and my gym teacher standing behind me and saying, "You can do this. Go on up."
So, at 10 years old, I scaled the rope. I got all the way to the gymnasium ceiling and then I wondered, "Now, how do I get DOWN?" I lingered up there for awhile before I accepted that there was only one good way to do it.
As I stood at the base of today's rope, 37 years later and with my daughter looking up and anticipating my response, I heard a voice inside my head say, "You can do this. Go on up."
I looked down at my child and replied, "You know what, baby? We're strong. The two of us -- we're really, really strong. We can do hard things."
And I shimmied my 47-year-old self on up that rope, feeling surprised by how easy it still was to do.
I wonder how I'd have felt if my gym teacher hadn't said those words: "You can do this. Go on up."
What if he'd said, "Okay, then you fail gym class." Or "Let's let one of the more athletic kids go before you." Or any other damaging thing that would've cemented my "I don't think so" into my identity.
Alternatively, I wonder what would've happened if he'd forced me; told me I was weak if I didn't do it; if he'd pressured me until he brought me to tears. If I'd have climbed that rope because he made me, would I learn that people can make me do things against my will?
That's certainly not the message my younger self needed. No child needs to be made to feel powerless. Words matter. A lot. We carry them forward and they tell us what we believe about ourselves. They tell us whether we can do hard things; whether we're worthy in the most basic of ways.
All these years later, his voice rung in my ears; and more than that, his belief in my abilities echoed in my heart. I wonder how many times in my life it was his words that gently pushed me forward to try some other hard thing. I’m guessing they did more than I realize.
When I shimmied to the top of that rope today, I didn't wonder how I'd get down. I knew what I'd have to do. But first, I waited up there for awhile, looking out at the scenery and thinking, "Doesn't it feel amazing to climb? To trust myself? To be so strong, if not in body, but in spirit – because someone told me I COULD rather than I COULDN’T?"
The words we use matter to our kids. They stick with them. They stick with us, because someday, these little kids are going to be just like us, wondering if they have the strength to climb.