I have the clearest memory of asking my father for help tying my shoes.
I was sitting on the bottom step of our unfinished basement—I must have been around four years old—trying to remember something about a rabbit and a hole. And there was my father, who already had all the knowledge I needed about shoelaces and rabbits; he could help me.
But instead he said, “You can tie your shoes yourself.”
And I did.
Maybe that memory is real. Maybe my mind constructed it out of dozens of memories like it. I don’t think it matters.
My parents pushed me to “tie my own shoes” throughout my childhood in countless ways, large and small. It’s one of the gifts for which I’m most grateful. Without a doubt there is a fine balance between holding a child’s hand and pushing them out into the world alone. I have no idea what that balance is—one of many reasons I’m not a parent.
As an adult, I’ve made a religion of self-sufficiency. Perhaps I’ve taken it to too much of an extreme, but that is what I have done. Solo travel, distance walks, one-way flights to countries where I know nobody, constant seeking for edges—my own, and the world’s…
Some people are adrenaline junkies. The Unknown gives me my high.
When I moved to Cape Town for the first time in early 2016, I didn’t know anyone there. I came with a name—a friend of a friend—and an address. When I found out that the house I’d already paid a deposit on was nowhere near the center of the city, I hitchhiked my way to climbing gyms, dance classes, and cozy cafes until I figured out the informal shared taxis.
Would it have been easier to have friends, family, or resources at my disposal, ready to give me rides, show me the ropes of a chaotic transport system, and introduce me to new friends? I’m sure it would have—but then, would I have learned as much?
I’m a firm believer that we grow fastest and fly farthest when we push ourselves well beyond our comfort zones. Experience has taught me a key paradox to traveling (and living) in a state of discovery: To thrive outside our comfort zone, we must trust, absolutely, that we can thrive outside our comfort zone. But to truly believe in our capacity for flight, we have to fly.
“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” — Kurt Vonnegut
Now, there are a few key elements to this jumping-off-cliffs-and-growing-wings business…
First, that balance. We are none of us an island, as a wise writer once said, more or less. For every cliff we jump off alone, there may well be another to whom we say, “not today,” and third on which we find a companion to hold our hand on the way down. Balance.
Second, support. While my parents were teaching me to tie my own shoes, they were also giving me love and support every step of the way. I am blessed to know that my family and friends are always there, ready to cheer me on when I fly, or pick me up if I take any knocks on the way down. Family, friends, community—a support system, even if we never call on it, makes it so much easier to jump.
Third, will. You could argue that personality or background determine our ability to grow wings, and I would disagree with you. While stubbornness is my dominant personality trait, and I don’t like following directions, I have met so many others far more resourceful than I, of every possible personality type and cultural background. I don’t believe it is personality; it’s will. Tautological though it may sound, to figure it out for yourself, you have to want to figure it out for yourself.
To grow wings, you have to grow wings.
Wrong question. It’s possible, and that’s really all we need to know.
Many thanks to a good friend here in Costa Rica, whose conversation on this subject pushed me to articulate what exactly I think about it!