Light and Shadow

Challenges in religious and spiritual life

Paddling Away from Regret: Pursuing a Dream Despite Fear

Pursuing a dream can be scary. But in the long run, is it riskier to turn away?

I had talked myself out of it. At dinner with friends on Waikiki Beach, I came right out and admitted that I was going to “chicken out.” I was too afraid to take a surfing lesson. But as I heard myself say those words, I didn’t feel any relief. Instead, my heart sank.

After all, this idea of surfing was not an impulsive one. It had grown slowly, quietly, from a place deep inside me. Over the past 10 years, I had held a lot of symbolic meaning around surfing. I had nurtured this interest through videos, reading, and images. At the level of imagination, then, surfing was already part of my life. But I also wanted a little taste of the real, physical, aesthetic experience. And if I was ever going to try surfing, this was the time. A surfer friend had told me that Waikiki, with its gentle waves and warm waters, would be an ideal place to learn. The busy conference that brought me to Hawaii was finally behind me now, and I had a few free days ahead--a window of opportunity. 

There was only one problem: I was scared. I get nervous in situations involving physical risk. And I’m not wild about the prospect of failing at something and making a fool of myself in public. But my biggest source of anxiety was that I didn’t want to take a surfing lesson with a teen-aged male instructor. As a middle-aged woman in so-so physical shape, and with no prior surfing experience, the prospect of being the student of some young guy was just too humiliating to consider. Yet all of the surfing schools that I had seen on the beach seemed to be staffed by young men. And this was the issue that I focused on when I was talking to my friends at dinner. The male instructor was the deal breaker, the pivotal point--the thing that made it seem unreasonable to try.

Here’s where things got interesting. After hearing me grouse about the male instructors, one of my friends started tapping away on his phone. In less than a minute he held his screen up in front of me: There, staring me in the face, was the website of a local company with “surfer girl” instructors.  

So there went my excuse, evaporating before my eyes. The choice before me became crystal clear: The door was open, and I had to decide whether to walk through it. And I knew deep down that if I didn’t, I would be choosing the way of regret.

Sometimes when I’m facing an important opportunity, one that is life-giving but outside my comfort zone, it seems like I get just enough information. I get just enough to encourage me, direct me, and gently press me toward the goal. It feels like a nudge: “Go this way.”

Sadly, nudges tend to omit handy details about what else might lie ahead, especially potential risks. The information seems to come on a need-to-know basis. But once I sense the nudge, I usually feel clear about which direction to take.

 

The next day I summoned up my courage and called the surfing school. As it turned out, it was probably good that I didn’t get all of the details before putting my money down. When the driver picked me up at my hotel, she asked whether I was a strong swimmer. Well, um, not really. Then she cheerfully handed me a waiver to sign. Predictably, it was one of those lengthy legal documents that highlighted the many opportunities for gruesome injuries, disfigurement, and death. But I didn't want to let my anxiety stop me. With my heart pounding and my mouth dry, I signed the form.

Ten minutes later, my gracious and patient instructor was standing with me on the beach, showing me what I’d need to do. Sure enough, it quickly became apparent that I was going to have trouble with this physically. To paddle out, I would have to hold my upper body up in a position that would be difficult to sustain, since I don’t have much upper body strength and am not very flexible. I was also having trouble remembering the steps. Hands back, get on my knees, left foot forward, stand up, keep my back foot flat. Wait, is that right? I need more time! Yet despite my uncertainties, within a few minutes we were out in the water, paddling away from shore.

No, I didn’t know what was going to happen. But I did know one thing: As I struggled out toward those breaking waves, I knew that I was moving toward my dream…and away from regret. 

Julie Exline, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. She is a licensed psychologist and a certified spiritual director.

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