April 20th was my son, Philip’s, 23rd birthday. He didn’t ask for much…all he wanted was for Mom and Dad to travel to Williamsburg with he and Janae, his lovely fiancée, and “do the ropes course.” Sounded to me like a fairly simple birthday request, so I said, “Let’s do it.”
What is a ropes course, you ask? The outdoor activity is constructed within a canopy of tall trees and consists of numerous rope ladders, trapeze lines, zip lines, and Tarzan swings. This particular ropes course had a grand finale of a 600 foot zip line.
Now I’m a guy who loves to ski and bike across foreign countries – I’m always up for a little adventure – so being tied securely to a line while zooming above the forest floor sounded like fun. As we got closer to the park, dark clouds began to cluster across the western sky. No problem – a ropes course is under the trees and will shield us from most of the rain, right?
We paid for our tickets and I quickly skimmed the “waiver of all liability” form, which seems to be included with everything these days, from riding bumper cars to free-jumping off the Dubai Skyscraper. (Not that I have ever free-jumped before…)
But as Cole, our instructor, helped us don our equipment and schooled us on making sure the red clip, blue clip, and green clip were properly attached and re-attached in the correct order, I first thanked God that I was not color blind, and then second, I began to have some mixed feelings about Phil’s birthday wish.
We arrived at the first tree and I looked up at the stately limbs through the rain that was now falling steadily. My mind began to reel: “What have I gotten myself into,” I thought. “I have raced snowmobiles in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, skied the Colorado Mountains, and conquered the grueling course of a 5k mud run. Get yourself together, Man!”
A deep breath, then gingerly, I began to climb the first tree.
All was going well until I reached the top, where I discovered I could not hug the tree trunk AND clamp myself into the safety wire at the same time. I looked around for Cole, who was nowhere to be found…he had disappeared into the foliage far below. I was on my own and quickly realized something was very different. It was at that moment that I learned…heights were just. not. my. thing. Neither was walking on thin wires, so I guess a career with the circus is out of the question.
My wife, Cathy, studied my face, concerned. Philip simply stared. They could not understand what they were seeing. Never before had they ever seen Dad hanging on for dear life, frozen in fear, not moving.
I shut my eyes and prayed. When I re-opened them, the scene had changed…I saw more than me desperately clutching bark – I saw a whole new world of greenery and space, a true birds-eye view. It was, to say the least, very cool.
Another deep breath and I convinced myself to soldier on, that it would be worth it. I slowly progressed, lagging behind everyone else. By the time we arrived at the third station, the rain was pelting down, adding a physical sting to my emotional one. Phil and Janae had already climbed the ladder, so I did what any self-respecting-professional-afraid-of-heights would do…I whispered into Cathy’s ear, “Why don’t we skip this station and meet them at the end?”
Cathy was flabbergasted. After 33 years of marriage, she couldn’t believe I would even suggest such a thing – quitting. Needless to say, I completed the ropes course, and lived to tell about it. That evening I called my oldest daughter, Courtnay, to relay my experience and to reveal how glad I was that she wasn’t there, as she probably would have given me a hard time. “Of course I would have, Dad,” came her quick retort. “Do you remember the book you made us all read when we were kids? It was called, ‘Do Hard Things.’”
Oh, the things my adult kids remember. Even the good lessons can come back to bite you.
So what did I learn from this experience? We should all, no matter what our age, attempt to “do hard things,” things that challenge us, things that are difficult, things that are uncomfortable. Only in adding weights to our barbells will we get stronger; and in the same way, only in stepping outside of our comfort zone can we exceed our own limits. We may have to shut our eyes to take that first step, but maybe when we re-open them, we’ll be greeted with an even cooler view.
Robert W. Tull, Jr. is founder and president of Tull Financial Group, and a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional in Chesapeake, Virginia. With more than 30 years of financial planning experience in Hampton Roads and beyond, he focuses on the areas of investment management, and retirement and estate planning. He also provides highly individualized personal and business advisory services.
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