“Alright, your job is to put all these marbles back into this cup,” my physical therapist announced as he spread about twenty marbles out on the floor. “3 times,” he added. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. I’ve gotta put these marbles in this cup…with my toes?? Well, he didn’t SAY to use my toes. That’d be so embarrassing. Maybe I can use my hands. But wait, nothing’s wrong with my hands. That can’t be what he meant. Looking around the room, I saw everyone around me doing strange things—things they were probably a little embarrassed to be doing too. A teenage girl was walking across the room, but she had to lift her right knee to her chest each time she took a step. A middle-aged woman was sitting at a table struggling with what looked like needlework, only with Play-Doh instead of thread. An elderly man was holding a squatting position against the wall and had been there since I’d walked into the room ten minutes ago. None of these people want to be doing this. They all feel crazy too. Might as well join the circus, I thought, as I lifted the first marble up…with my toes.
Have you ever felt like an idiot when you had to start at the beginning of something? That’s exactly how I felt at physical therapy that day. As somebody who used to run kind of long distances, I couldn’t believe I had to do exercises just to get used to having weight on the right side of my body, just to prepare myself to start taking steps again. Due to an injury that left me in a cast for four weeks, the muscles in my right leg were…close to inexistent. So, as embarrassing and humbling as these tedious exercises were, they were very necessary. At that point, walking was HARD. It was painful, and I couldn’t do it without thinking about every step I took. I was trying to do something familiar, but I had to learn how to do it differently.
Have you ever tried to go back to something you haven’t done in a while? Maybe you danced in middle school, and you signed up for a new ballet class ready to do chaine turns across the floor, or maybe you’re getting ready for the GRE, and it’s been a hot second since you’ve done simple algebra. Unlike starting a completely new hobby, going back to something old can be scary. It brings fear of inadequacy and a sense of defeat with even the most minute hiccups, like barely being able to walk across the room or put a marble into a cup with your toes.
That last one was me this summer: doing crazy exercises to get back to being able to walk without thinking about it again.
But if taking the first steps of re-learning to walk wasn’t humbling enough, there was an added bonus of learning to TALK differently too.
That’s right: unable to WALK or TALK like “normal” all at once.
In the midst of what I’ve termed “The Foot Saga,” I traveled to China for a month for work after being Stateside for four years. Four years of no Mandarin, four weeks of walking in a cast, and BAM! I’m on a plane to Beijing, where walking and talking became twice as difficult.
Reading this, you may think, “Wow, that’s kinda brave! She went to a foreign country by herself not sure if she could walk or talk once she got there!” But really, I didn’t have much of a choice with either of these things. Just as there was no avoiding attempting to speak Chinese in Beijing, there was no avoiding walking extensively (I accidentally walked ten miles my first day there, and that was just to explore the new campus a little and go to dinner with a friend), whether I’d just gotten out of a cast or not. So, like it or not, I had to humble myself and start from the beginning with both of those things.
Truth be told, I don’t love trying new things. I don’t like feeling inadequate, and I certainly don’t like failing, so it’s easier just to play it safe. Easier, but more accurately, less scary. Through all this last summer, though, I learned that shying away from new things because of fear was keeping me from something I REALLY want to do, and I decided to put a stop to it. If you’ve known me for any amount of time, you know that my relationship with China has been long-standing. From being six years old begging my mom to adopt a Chinese girl to being a teacher there my first year after of college, I’ve had an acute interest in this country for as long as I can remember. And even though my last trip to China before this one was four long years ago, my love for this place never died. But even with something like this that I cared about so deeply, something that I’d been passionate about for as long as I could remember, I had let fear of failure stop me from doing what I really wanted with it.
When I went to China for the first time, I was 19. I barely knew how to say “thank you” in Chinese at that point, and I was so intimidated by this language that sounded so utterly foreign to me. I literally couldn’t decipher individual words when we walked around on the campus where we stayed that Christmas, so I decided right then and there that I couldn’t learn Chinese. It was an insurmountable task, and I wasn’t willing to risk failure.
Fast forward four years, and I find myself moving to China for a year. At this point, I did want to learn more of the language, but I didn’t take language study seriously. Fast forward another four years, and I found myself returning to the country I love, still unable to communicate with the vast majority of people who live there. The funny thing is, that somewhere along the way, I heard it takes native English speakers about 7 years to become fluent in Chinese. Since the first time I went to China was 8 years ago, if I hadn’t let fear of failure stand in my way that very first trip, there’s a good chance I’d be able to speak Chinese fairly fluently by now.
Of course I’m not happy that my foot was injured for several months, but I AM glad that through recovering from that injury, I was forced to face the fear of failure and knock it right between the eyes. Because there I was, being wheeled through the Beijing airport by a man who didn’t speak English, so I had to try to use what little Chinese I remembered. And there I was, knowing I couldn’t take the wheelchair out of the airport, so I had to walk myself to the taxi, suitcases and all. Left with no other choice, I couldn’t let fear of failure stop anymore.
Thinking back to all the things that this fear has kept me from doing throughout my life wouldn’t be productive, but thinking ahead to things I won’t let it stop me from might make a difference. So, I’ve decided to be aware that this fear of failure exists, and I’ve purposed in my heart not to let it control what I do. At this point, learning Chinese is what I’m not letting this fear stop me from. Yes, it’ll be hard, and yes, I’ll make a lot of mistakes, but I’m unwilling to let fear stop me from trying something new anymore. So, like putting marbles in a cup, I’ll take the first step to start at the very beginning of learning this language. And whatever it may be for you, I hope you find the strength to say “Enough is enough” to fear of failure and take your first step too.
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