My son is studying in London for the semester. Even a year ago the notion of us being an ocean apart seemed impossible. When he suggested the idea, the mom in me who still vividly remembers cradling my baby boy had a series of thoughts. “You’re not old enough to be that far from home.” And “Do you really think you’re grown-up enough to be so independent?” And “No way. You still need me. Don’t you?”
But I didn’t say these things out loud. In fact, as I looked into his blue eyes and saw the confidence and excitement there, a another voice (thankfully less emotional and more rational) spoke up. And she said, “Yes!” Because this mom in me knows this is a kid who rises to the occasion. She also knows this space is precisely what he needs to continue growing into the man he’s becoming.
When I received the text, “Just so you know, I’m pretty sick,” those two moms in me spoke up again. The one who misses her baby quietly started working logistics on how to get to London. The other one calmly asked for his symptoms and sent him the names of the medicines that have worked for him in the past, as well as a list of the ingredients in these drugs so he could find the British equivalents. She also said a prayer of thanks that we can text for free, and did so off and on throughout the day.
He made it to the pharmacy where he found a pharmacist to help him choose the right medicine. He ordered some take-out food so he didn’t waste away. He let his professors know he was sick. He stayed home to rest. In short, he handled being sick in a foreign country – something that is never easy – just fine.
On the third day, just as I was heaving a sigh of relief that he was going to live (drama … such drama), my husband said, “You know, it’s kind of good that this hard thing happened. It’s just more grist for the “I Can Do It” mill.”
And he’s right. Our son now knows he can take care of himself in sickness and in health. While neither he nor I would have chosen for him to lose a week of his European adventure feeling sick, he successfully handled the challenging situation. And, I suspect, he’s feeling pretty good about that and probably even more confident about his ability to have the semester of his dreams.
At first glance, it might seem smart to avoid hard things in life. It might seem that choosing to do things that you’re good at maximizes your chances for success. But this is actually not that the case. In fact, science shows that challenging ourselves – even to the point of frustration and beyond – is a surefire way for us to keep our minds working at peak capacity. [See Lisa Feldman Barrett’s fascinating explanation of the development of the brain that comes when one regularly chooses to challenge oneself.]
This is something I have learned from years of practicing yoga. On my mat, I’ve discovered that challenges are opportunities to grow – to develop new abilities, to deepen your self-confidence, to stretch yourself past your limits. Don’t get me wrong. The challenges I’ve faced on my yoga mat are never fun, are rarely easy, and are often scary. Injury. Illness. Debilitating fear. Seemingly intractable stiffness. None of these are issues I’d go looking for. But, when they come looking for me, I’ve noticed that my initial reaction is no longer to try to avoid them.
I may still have a little cry or even a temper tantrum. But, surprisingly quickly, I find that it’s gratitude for the chance to learn and grow (mixed with a healthy dose of faith) that gets me moving again in the face of whatever hard thing I’ve been given to figure out. So far I’ve never disappointed myself. There has been a gift hiding within every ache and pain and on the far side of every conquered fear. But the real treasure is that I see myself meeting challenges off my mat with the same attitude.
This is exactly why I think the wiser of the two moms in me was so passionately in favor of my son studying overseas. Any time we can put ourselves in the position to meet a challenges we take another step toward becoming the people we have the potential to be. I suspect after this adventure that my boy is on, that he, like me, will learn to stay on the lookout for grist to feed his “I-Can-Do-It mill.”
Maybe you will too?