Self-imposed challenges offer chance to broaden horizons, dodge regret

Posted July 10, 2009, at 6:17 p.m.

The holiday weekend spent on Boston’s North Shore was sunny, breezy and mild. After spending a soggy springtime in deluge-dampened Maine, the summery weekend signaled that it was time to plunge to the hilt into outdoor activities — the kind that consist of communing with nature.

Walking along the Nahant shore, my friend expressed a longing to take his first salt-water swim of the year. We soon saw that he was not the only person possessing that notion, as we observed several young teens leaping from a high dock into the water. The choice for my friend was to dive from a dock floating on the water nearby, or to join the youths in flinging himself from a height of almost 16 feet.

Knowing him to be a competent swimmer and an adventurous soul who even chooses on occasion to dive with sharks, I was not surprised when he got in position to dive from the high dock. When he hesitated as the sun went under a cloud and it seemed less inviting to take a swim, I hoped he would feel comfortable changing his mind if the height seemed too extreme. I felt convinced it is important to pay attention to your comfort level in such situations and to trust your gut enough to say no to activities that seem too dangerous. But when the sun shone again, my friend dove in, exhibiting admirable courage and form.

The process looked like second nature to him. Yet, when he was drying off, he admitted that he’d never before jumped from such a height. He said he had had to convince himself to take the plunge. He seemed exhilarated to have met his self-imposed challenge and he said he knew he would have regretted it if he had not.

Later in the weekend, the same friend generously arranged for the two of us to go sea kayaking out of Rockport, Mass. As we set out for our adventure, I experienced the mixed emotions of gratitude and nervousness. Only a week before, I had asserted to someone else that I would never go sea kayaking without honing some skills on still water. Now I was getting literally swept out to sea by the enthusiasm of my friend.

As we put on our life jackets and picked up our paddles, I thought about my friend’s recent dive from the 16-foot-high dock. I remembered how I’d hoped he would not take the plunge unless he was truly comfortable with the idea, and I thought I should do the same regarding sea kayaking if I were too uneasy about it. I also remembered how my friend had dared himself to take that leap and how glad he was to know he had met the challenge he’d set himself.

Inspired by this, and knowing help would be at hand even if I felt entirely out of my depth, I stepped into the kayak. I saw immediately that the secret of sea kayaking is to work with, rather than fight or resist the conditions you meet. Rather like interacting with a lover, you must measure the nature of all you encounter, respect it, and respond accordingly. By turning my fear of the sea into respect for it, I soon found myself at ease in the tandem kayak with my friend. I welcomed the choppy water and swells we encountered. Finally, like my friend emerging from his dive, I cherished the satisfaction of knowing I’d expanded my comfort zone instead of cringing within it.

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