Recently I was playing with a pen on an airplane, clicking it open-closed-open-closed over and over when I had a vivid flashback of a bloody finger. I should state, for the record, I am the kind of airplane seat neighbor you want to suffocate after being stuck with in a metal can flying around at rapid speeds above the earth for 5 hours. I have crazy nervous ticks and I completely disregard people’s personal space by snoring in their face or spilling tiny plastic bottles of red wine in their laps. I am well aware of this fact, but make no claims nor maintain any hope I will ever fix it. I wear it with self-loathing pride, like those football fans who wear their team paraphernalia even after the star kicker was charged and indicted with second degree murder.
Once, on a trip from France to the US, I was feeling peckish pre-flight so I grabbed a baguette and a small pound of cheese from a friendly man at a nearby café. The cheese I happened to grab was that awful cheese that tastes delicious but makes you want to throw up at the mere sight and smell of it. It’s the same cheese that I would give my right arm for on rainy days when there’s only fresh vegetables left to eat in the refrigerator.
I board a large plane that begins taxiing to take off when the stewardess asks if I’d like a light meal post-departure. I tell her I’m all set with my cheese, recline my chair into the unexpecting man’s lap behind me and tear open the wrapping on my unbelievable pound of cheese. I start munching on it like a mouse that hasn’t had a meal in 2 weeks, crumbs everywhere, and it’s at this precise moment that I notice exactly 5 people pinching their noses and staring at me with disdain. The old French man sitting to my right asks if I’m enjoying my meal. I don’t speak French sarcasm, so I say yes and offer him a bite. He looks like he’d rather die. I go on munching, Alice lost in Cheeseland, and eventually fall asleep while drooling on the man’s left shoulder.
Anyhow, as I said, I was recently playing with a pen on an airplane when I had a vivid flashback of a wrinkled finger and oozing blood. I had been clicking the pen open and closed, open and closed, for hours. I don’t know what it is about pens that click but I just love the way the pen feels and sounds when it clicks closed. The unique combination of frustrating everyone around me with the feeling of having accomplished something so minuscule yet so powerful really gets me going. I almost never use the pen in any meaningful way, but the entertainment ensues.
The finger from the bloody finger flashback belonged to my grandmother. She was my father’s mother. She was my father’s protector, my father’s cheerleader, my father’s voice, and my father’s deepest sorrow. She lived for my father’s happiness. When I was a kid, she stayed with us for many years in the guest bedroom on the ground floor of our house. She slowly deteriorated from an able, vivacious mother of 8 to a struggling, suffering grandmother of 22. She was the centrifuge to our family. I had no idea at the time, but she was the glue that held us together, the pin that kept forcing us to hang out, the love and home that we all shared and respected and admired.
My grandmother was a literal badass. She raised a crazy number of children, in absurd circumstances across 4 continents, and did it without any of the recognition we expect today like when our first kid takes a shit for the first time and we proudly post the video on Instragram amassing hundreds of likes. Hashtag #parentingskillz.
When my grandmother got older, she developed diabetes. That crazy woman loved her sugar like an alcoholic loves cough medicine. She had lost all her real teeth and yet she’d make me sneak her a cookie or a mithai when no one was looking, and for a while I was thus convinced I was directly responsible for her death.
Part of the process of dealing with diabetes in the 90’s involved a kit with a long cylindrical device that you’d slot a fresh needle into with every use. You’d click the needle open and prick the patient with this device. Blood would immediately gush out from their finger, and you’d have to capture some of it on a tiny piece of plastic. Then, you had to slide that plastic piece into this little electronic gizmo, wait for a few minutes, when the gizmo would proceed to tell you what the patient’s blood sugar level was. For a 10-year-old, highly sheltered, and spoon-fed child, it was just about as scary an experience as one could get. Even though my blood sugar was fine and this device was solely intended for my father’s mother, I was chronically mortified someone was going to kill me with this device.
My parents were the kinds of parents that loved to put their kids in uncomfortable and difficult situations just to “see what happens”. It was their way of ensuring we’d never become secure, overconfident or sane individuals.
So one sunny California day, Dad tells me to grab my things so we can go see Grandma. We head out to her house, he hands me her blood kit, and says, “Go take Grandma’s blood levels.”
I looked at him with horror, but my father was not one to take talkback lightly, so I bowed my head and considered my options.
It was at this moment I first wondered what failure meant. On one hand, I knew I could not shy away from the task without causing disappointment and frustration. On the other, it seemed clear to me that if I failed, a lot of people would be very angry with me and I may even cause physical harm to my sweet dentured grandmother.
This choice between disappointment and deep emotional and physical pain completely debilitated me. I lived for moments of triumph and success. I loved seeing that sparkle in my father’s eye when I accomplished something difficult. I yearned to hear him boast about my brilliance at parties with his friends. What would happen if I failed? Would I fall from grace in his heart? Would I lose my longtime standing as favorite child in the house? Would people whisper about me behind my back?
In hindsight it was a relatively innocuous ask. The device was built such that you really could not do much more than draw a few ml of blood from someone, and there was almost no way to mess up the reading. That was not the point.
Often, regardless of how small or large a challenge is in comparison to the greatest challenges people face in the world, in that precise moment we’re faced with making the decision of what to do next, of how to proceed, it feels like the hardest, scariest, most daunting decision we’ve ever had to make. It is not possible to have perspective in those moments, nor should we expect to. When we’re faced with a challenge for the first time in our lives, a challenge that requires a clear and timely decision based on a limited set of facts and information, we tend to do one of three things on impulse: we freeze, we run, or we fight.
The hard part when we’re scared is staying calm, believing in ourselves, and proceeding forward with both caution and confidence that we can do it. It’s the road less travelled, the road hidden beneath the leaves, the road we must find and embrace.
I did not manage to take this road, that day. I froze, threw a fit, and ran out of the house crying and accusing my dad of child abuse. It was one of my finer moments in my life.
I did, however, happen to run a huge staple through my own finger using an industrial sized stapler a few weeks later, realizing not only does such failure result in dismay and anger, but it can also cause confusion and laughter as well as pain and humiliation. After the initial shock and embarrassment, the emotions dissipated and we all went back to our normal lives.
What stuck with me though, was that this inane, goofy failure gave me the confidence to tackle the immense fear of killing my grandmother with a pen. Had I not overcome that fear, nor built the confidence to tackle the challenge head on, I may never have discovered my passion for helping those in need.
This unique triumph over my fear of failure happened on accident. I did not intend to hurt myself or to instill fear in my parents’ hearts. My theory, though, is that we each have a Zone of Proximal Resilience we are willing and able to take on. When we are in the Zone, we feel nervous and excited, we feel fear and intrigue, we feel both able and unable at the same time. Our instinct in the Zone is to protect ourselves, to shy away from the challenge, to go the easier, safer route.
I believe we must tackle the challenge, build our risk tolerance, and grow the confidence to go further and become greater beings over time.
I believe we all face challenges in life that feel insurmountable. At times we’ve chosen them, and at others they’ve been handed to us. Life hands us lemons when we least expect them and when we would really prefer not to have them at all. It’s in those moments we become filled with fear and we are asked to make big decisions that will affect the lives of ourselves as well as the people we love and care for. The only way we can truly create delicious lemonade rather than cower from salted water and yellow balls is by learning first how to cut and squeeze lemons, tasting the water as it sours and sweetens, and finding the right recipe to quench our thirst as we tackle life’s challenges head on.