With our helmets in one hand and our kayaks dragged by the other, we make our way towards the wooden stairs that lead to the small riverbank. A mass of swarming bugs is directly in our path, and we lazily swing at them with our helmets as they bounce all around. At the stairs, we follow the guide’s instructions and let our kayaks slide down the hillside on our left. The kayaks go first, then we make our way down to meet them. The small, sandy bank is just large enough for us to make our final preparations before embarking.
This is my first look at the river. A casual throw could cross its width, but looking up and down its banks, I do not see another place to stand. The river appears calmer and shallower than I expected. My eyes gravitate towards visible rocks and sticks in the water. The guide’s instructions again come to mind, “If you’re looking at rocks, you’ll hit rocks. Look where you want to go, not at what you want to avoid.” My mind briefly notes how the guiding principle of this advice is applicable outside of kayaking. But my attention is quickly drawn back to the challenge at hand as my dad encourages me to get in first so he can push me away from the shore. The river looks so inviting, but I find myself nervous and unsure.
Before the stairs and small sandy bank leave our sight, I notice a familiar feeling in my gut. Can I do this? We are on our own and I do not feel prepared or capable of overcoming this challenge. I could step out of my kayak right now, beach it, return it to the guide, feel the shame of backing out, and find something else to do. Anything else. I have before; two or three years earlier and I would have done just that in this moment. I know this as simply as I can see the water around me.
I notice this feeling but am not overwhelmed. It occurs in seconds, and I know I am different than I was. As we push away with our paddles, the calm current takes us in. Here we go. I am here because I want to be uncomfortable and nervous and unsure. Those are old friends. The difference now is that I choose to move forward while they are with me. We can make it through; not sure how, but we’ll figure it out. I breathe, put on a defiant grin and paddle down river.
When we discover through experience that the potentially unwanted consequences of risks are not worth getting close to, we learn, with great adeptness, to avoid risks altogether. We can even become skilled at avoiding risks many steps in advance.
We may remember a time when we took a risk and lost greatly, or not, but we have a bone-deep sense of stubborn disinterest. Or we may simply yet profoundly remember being hurt by someone. I have experienced in my own story and have seen it in others that such stubbornness does not appear out of thin air but has an origin. For some, the origin is known and feels profound; for others, the origin is more vague or feels insignificant. Regardless, here is the reality:
Your being (body, soul, mind, and heart) has learned not to risk. Trauma screams and then whispers that taking risks will lead to hurt, so avoid them. Because many of us learned this in childhood, this survival skill is not a conscious thought but is wired into us. Here is another reality, one that trauma seeks to keep us away from:
The very thing that leads to life and healing is taking risks.
We can learn to recapture our sense of adventurous risk taking. We can teach our beings (even if it is for the first time) that we are going to be okay when we feel nervous and unsure. We can do this by trying something new like rappelling a cliff face or kayaking class 3 rapids. We can also do this by bringing up an idea at work or by choosing to engage with loved ones at home. These adventures will pull us out of our comfort zone and show us that we can do far more than we thought.
You may think that relational engagement is not risky but avoiding relational risk (being vulnerable with friends or family) is the greatest loss that comes from trauma.
If relational risk feels too overwhelming, begin in nature. Taking risks in one area of life teaches us that we can handle risks in other areas. When you feel like I did at the beginning of my kayaking adventure, incapable, nervous and scared, believe that you do not have to feel fully confident to move forward. You do not have to know the ending.
Trauma tells us that taking risks is too much. The truth is that even when it feels too much, the very thing that leads to life and healing is moving forward anyway.
Grab a helmet. Take a breath. And step out.
Kevin Fitzsimmons graduated from Berry College in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and from the University of West Georgia in 2021 with a Master of Education in Professional Counseling. Kevin has a heart for connecting with men of all ages and encouraging them to be curious about their heart.