When I was little I used to play tag with my cousins. First, we would rock paper scissors to see who was “it,” then we would name the parameters of the playing field, including the safe zone. In this space—which was usually the blue wall next to our back door—you were not allowed to be tagged or chased, so you could catch your breath and stretch your legs, before letting go of the wall and getting back in the game.
My cousin was and will always be faster than me. I rarely made it to the safe zone without being tagged and was even less likely to reemerge from it safely. He would always watch me out of the corner of his eye, calling me back out on the playing field, challenging my bravery. Sometimes I’d take my hand off the wall, only to replace it seconds later when I saw him shift his feet in my direction. I’d scream and laugh and lean my whole body against the wall to showcase my safety, and he’d laugh and hover around me for a few minutes, daring me to try again. When I finally did, I’d run like hell, bringing my entire body back to life. The wind would whip against my face and I’d weave in and out of trees on my grandparents’ property. Each step I felt him getting closer and closer, knowing that my time was running out.
Over time, I’ve found that life is similar to tag, in that sitting on the sidelines, staying in the “safe zone,” is not as fun as playing the game. That’s the trouble with a safe zone, it will be there when you need it and when you don’t, and it’s hard to differentiate the need. There is no timer, no buzzer announcing a full battery or a renewed perspective. You have to recognize the condition of your own soul, and act accordingly.
One afternoon I tripped in the gravel and scraped my knee. My cousin tagged me, “it”, while I was down, but then helped me up and ensured that I was okay. We went inside and cleaned it off and sat in the kitchen eating popsicles while the pain subsided. We read the jokes on our sticks and tossed them in the trash as we laughed, repeating the punch lines over and over, before he looked at me and said, “do you want to keep playing?”
When I finished college I was terrified to let go of the wall. Debt and doubt and expectations were all that I heard. They lurked around me, daring me to let go. For a while I thought that maybe, if I held on long enough, they’d give up and chase someone else, just like my cousin used to. But every time I opened my eyes, every time I inched away from the wall, there they were, running toward me, laughing at my cowardice. I would picture the fall before I started running, feel the blood before there was a cut. I mistook my fear for fatigue and convinced myself that taking no risk was better than taking one that had the potential to hurt me.
But there is really no way to avoid getting cut for the entirety of your life. At some point, something will break the skin and bring you to your knees. At first, getting up will be unbearable. The pain will seemingly spread to your bones, your muscles, your blood, making it impossible to move. And while an important ingredient of recovery is the stillness of the body that allows it to mend, one must not underestimate the healing power held within making it move again.
When I finished college, I let the expectation of others dictate my own work ethic. I didn’t have the answers right away so I assumed they’d ever come. I didn’t have the patience for progress, thus preventing it from beginning.
“Do you want to keep playing?” my cousin asked me.
I looked down at my knee. It had long stopped bleeding and no longer throbbed, but I worried about what would happen if I got back in the game. What if it hurts worse than before? What if I can’t run as good? But then I remembered how it felt when I was stuck in the safe zone, similarly paralyzed by fear. No matter how comfortable the safe zone felt, I always had more fun when I let go.
I nodded, rising to my feet. For now, even though I was caught, even though I got hurt in the process, I was back in the game and now I was in control.
“Hey everybody! We’re back and Kim’s ‘it’, RUN!”