…and sometimes you need to ask for a helping hand.

Yesterday I wrote about failure on a small scale. If I fail at my challenge for December, the only person I’m hurting is myself.

If only every failure was that benign. I don’t like asking for help. Like just writing off a goal when I hit the first obstacle, this is a behavior learned because earlier in my life I asked for help and suffered because of it.

I grew up in a chaotic environment that made studying or doing homework at home nearly impossible for most of my middle and high school careers. In eighth grade, the situation had reached a boiling point that would persist for years. Every moment at home was either in the calm eye of the storm knowing it couldn’t last, or being witness and sometimes party to the destruction. I couldn’t concentrate or work in that environment, and I don’t know anyone who could.

I was desperate. I reached out to a teacher for help when I was going to miss an important assignment for them.

What I received in return was nasty public dressing down in front of my class the next day about the late assignment using her knowledge of my situation to make sure it stung and humiliated me. It wasn’t the first time I’d asked for help, and it wasn’t the first time I’d been let down, but being torn down publicly like that meant I began dreading the idea of asking for help.

I developed my own solution to passing that teacher’s class and the eighth grade. I also learned to just give up when I felt overwhelmed and knew I could get away with it, academically. Eventually I ended up in a private school where I was able to make sure I could stay late after school most days of the week, and got in early most mornings. I mastered the art of doing ‘Good Enough’ to pass. I was clever enough, and lucky enough to pull it all off. I told happy lies to teachers, my classmates, and myself to make sure no one looked too deeply past the ‘obviously bright but lazy and unreliable’ facade that become the core narrative I presented as I slogged through the next 25 years.

I took Calculus I this Spring. I got a B, which I thought was pretty good, but school has changed a lot in the last 25 years, and I suspected I might have been a ‘beneficiary’ of grade inflation. I was happy to pass but worried that I didn’t feel as strong about the subject as I had about previous classes. My suspicions were, unfortunately, correct.

I withdrew from Calculus II this fall after 6 weeks and two exams that proved that the skills I came to that class with were inadequate for the course material. There were other issues, but the responsibility for my failure rests solely on my shoulders.

I could have asked for help: from my teacher, from the math tutors at school, or from my wife who has a math degree! With so many options, it seems obvious that I should have asked for help. But I didn’t, for a multitude of reasons. I felt angry that I’d apparently been handed a grade indicating skills I didn’t have in the previous course. I felt embarrassed that I was apparently ‘too dumb’ to get the material. And behind them the root of all these fears: I was terrified of asking for help and getting torn down somehow because of it. I tried to power through it myself and instinctively smothered the worst of my doubts to hide my anxiety.

There was no reason to believe my teacher, any math tutors, or my wife would humiliate me, but deep down, there’s a 13-year-old boy who still remembers being humiliated when he asked for help buried under 26 years of trying to make sure it didn’t happen again.

Not asking for help was an expensive and humiliating mistake. I need to take Calc II, and very probably Calc I, again before I finish my BS, and I have to be ready to ask for help when I do, and not be cowed by 26-year-old scars.

Knowing how to fall so you can get back up is an important skill, but sometimes you should ask for a helping hand.

Learn to fall to learn how to get back up

It’s over halfway through December, and I’ve only achieved my personal challenge to meditate or walk 6 times, one day out of every three. I have excuses by the fistful, but I won’t enumerate them here. Several of them sound very convincing, but ultimately they are hollow because the only way I could not have time in my day to meditate for even a few minutes is if I was in a coma.

I don’t deal with failure well. The idea of giving up at this point is attractive because it’s habitual for me. I see success and failure as a binary relationship. It is a learned behavior that was useful, even healthy, in a small number of situations over the years. It’s a crutch, like the excuses that facilitate it, and I need to accept that it’s less successful than even my 6 out of 18 days record for  this month.

I studied Judo 25 years ago, and the cliché trotted out repeatedly about it is that the first thing they teach you is how to fall. It’s true, but a gross oversimplification. Everyone who walks into a dojo for the first time knows how to fall, they just aren’t very good at it. Learning how to fall is really about learning how to get back up: you must land in such a way that you’re able to stand quickly and continue.

I failed twelve times, but I succeeded six, including yesterday and today. I plan on succeeding tomorrow, and if I don’t, I won’t just lie there. I’ll get back up and try again the day after tomorrow.

December 2013 Challenge: Walk or Meditate

It’s December, which means the first of my challenges has begun. It’s a very simple and doable one: To walk or meditate every day.

Meditation is something I’ve managed to do on a regular basis before. I haven’t been meditating regularly in quite a while, however. Why? I could produce a pile of excuses but they’re tripe. Meditation doesn’t take that long if you’re pressed for time, and it doesn’t require a lot of setup. What regular meditation does need is a habit, and that’s what I’m trying to regain.

I’m partnering walking with my meditation practice because walking is something that requires a bit more time and preparation. I prefer not to walk in my own neighborhood, for instance, so I travel a short distance to where I want to walk. Walking has a lot of benefits that are similar to meditation, and it’s also a healthy habit to encourage, if the weather continues to cooperate.

I successfully meditated on the 1st, so we’re 1/31 of the way there…

Challenges

I’m wary of New Year’s resolutions hatched in the boredom between Christmas and New Year’s. I’m just as wary of the kind that grow out of the inevitable panic that surrounds birthdays. I’m not alone, but we gravitate towards these vows without realizing the scope of the challenge because we’re looking for the quick fix to something that we’re missing.

I’ve developed a new appreciation for zenhabits of late and been impressed with Leo’s ‘A Year of Living Without‘ challenges though I’m not as ambitious as him by a long shot. A month without coffee? That is madness!

I’m not going to try something as audacious as any of Leo’s personal challenges. I’m going to start smaller. A year of challenges. One for a year and smaller ones every month:

  • My challenge for 2014: Read at least one book a month.
  • My challenge for December 2013: Meditate or walk every day.

I’ll post some more thoughts about these as their beginning approaches. I do need one ground rule for myself before I start, and that is I can’t let these get in the way of school. I won’t set any audacious monthly goals for myself until the spring semester is over, but if there is a conflict, school wins. That’s a challenge I set myself long ago.

Flood

A few weeks ago where I live was inundated by record-breaking rainfall. A year’s worth of rain fell in a few short days. The mountain towns were hardest hit, the worst of it coming one night when mudslides crushed homes and their sleeping occupants.

Downhill, the danger from the swollen creeks was compounded by the legacy of forest fires in previous years. Ashy sludge and debris formed impromptu dams in the burnt vales, causing water to pool behind them until the debris couldn’t hold it back any longer. The result was frightening, and potentially deadly, flash floods.

Cutting myself off from most social media changed my relationship with words. While a quick status update let the pressure of the words that accumulate in my thoughts filter out in dribs and drabs, the lack of a too-convenient social media bung to release them leads to flash floods of words. Blog posts, emails, even just a conversation with my wife might be downstream from the fragile dam that they collect behind.

There’s a freedom to letting the words pool instead of trying to fit your thoughts into 140 characters. You can craft each sentence and reflect on them to make sure that each of them are just right. Save it as a draft, come back to it two or three days later. Status updates, text messaging, tweets, these are the steady but dim light of a candle compared to the meteor that is a 1000 word email to your mom.

We have gotten too used to the drip-drip-drip. If you want to write — really write, be it a letter to your mother, a NaNoWriMo, or a 12 volume fantasy epic — encourage a deluge.