I recently took some time out to go hiking up a mountain. The climb was steep. Near the midpoint of the mountain, the path became rocky, and at some points seemed nearly vertical.
I scrambled for miles up the path. This was difficult for me, partly due to nerve damage and muscle atrophy after a dislocated knee and broken leg that makes it difficult to “feel” where my foot is in space. I’ve always disliked the idea of being thought of as disabled and gone out of my way to avoid it, even going so far as to run (okay, jog and walk) through two marathons, even though I routinely fall on runs more than a few miles. So I managed to make it to the summit. There I saw a rocky spire.
I struggled to climb up, but couldn’t find a way. My floppy ankle, weak leg, and my newly discovered fear of heights proved to be too much. I peered down into the valley from near the base of the formation, and then, resigned, came back down.
I was preparing to walk back down the mountain path, when, as if from nowhere, a man appeared near the top of the rock formation.
He was sipping casually on coffee, or ambrosia, or some other wisdom enhancing beverage. Perhaps there was hope, then. Perhaps this wise fellow on top of the rock could offer some advice. After a substantial silence, I shouted out, ashamedly explaining but also probing and hoping to know the secret: “I’m not going to climb all the way up today – I’ve never climbed before and I want to practice somewhere safer first.”
And the answer came down from the mountain: “Good idea. This is one of those places where if you make a mistake, you won’t get another chance!”
I was briefly disappointed. What kind of spiritual guide on a mountain top lets you give up on something that other people do routinely? Had I made the journey up the mountain for nothing?
I had learned something important. Sometimes we need to recognize and acknowledge our limitations; not doing so can be dangerous. This was such a spiritual moment for me, not only because of the clichéd mountain pilgrimage, but because it parallels another challenge in my life right now.
Shortly after moving here, I sought professional help in developing better and more appropriate social skills. As a result of this, and through a serious of coincidences, I’ve learned something surprising about myself. There are profound eccentricities in the ways that I respond to sensory stimuli, in the ways that I process information, and in my ability to understand and respond to subtle signals from other people.
I have conflicted feelings about this knowledge. I feel flawed, but also special. I’m glad to have this new information, but confused that I didn’t learn it until well into adulthood. I’m disappointed to feel that I might not ever understand the world the way that most people understand it, but also relieved to have a new framework in which to understand myself. It explains those successes that I thought were luck, and many of my mistakes. I’ve been feeling a certain sadness from revisiting some bad choices that I’ve made in my personal and professional spheres, but I also feel a new compassion for myself and a new forgiveness.
I am optimistic now. By chance, I found someone who has helped people who are more obviously affected than I am, who will teach me new skills, and who can help me to manage my disability and my ability. I have a life that I enjoy, in a great town, at a wonderful job with plenty of projects to work on and people who want to see me succeed. So my only struggle, right now, is to accept that I have a problem that I need help with in order to be successful at work, to find out who at work is both willing and able to help, and to find a way to ask for that help without seeming unprofessional, incompetent, or problematic.
I think I can do this.
Update 2015-06: I may not be so different after all. And I’ve failed to “do this” so far. It’s okay. I’ll try again.