I’ve never been a fan of team fitness. Along with being ‘not much of a joiner’ in my youth, working with a group brings up all my old gym class anxiety – weakest link, strike-out in baseball, The Absolute Worst at volleyball. Even now, the memories of rolled eyes and impatient sighs return. I avoid most exercise classes, and am quick to step to the side of a hiking trail when groups come up behind me. The potential of being the drag, the person everyone is waiting on, brings up too much anxiety for me to handle.
But you can’t curate every moment of your life.
On our recent trip to Kerala (check out my tumblr: weboldlygo), we made our way up into the mountains of Thekkady, home to one of the largest wildlife preserves in India. There are many ways to experience the preserve, everything from self-guided nature walks to overnight camping and tiger-stalking excursions. But the option that most stood out to me was bamboo rafting.
I mean, check out that zen.
Bamboo rafting turned out to be less of a cruise down the Periyar Lake while scoping out wildlife and more of a group trek through the South Indian specialty of oppressive sunshine and thick humidity. Oh, yes, with a group of strangers. Yay.
My Weakest Link anxiety started to creep up as it became clear that we were not just walking over to a nearby raft. I was ready for the stitch in my ribs or the overwhelming breathlessness that was going to force me to stop and fall behind the group. Or worse, bring them all to a pause while they waited for me to compose myself. Grimly, I hoped that my dread would push me along for a little while.
We had been caught in a similar surprise group hike a few years ago, on a visit to San Pancho on the Western coast of Mexico. The promise of a nearby waterfall took us on a hike through the jungly brush off the main roads, an excursion I was ill-prepared for in flip-flops and beach attire. I slipped to the back of the group in no time, trying to hide my panting and sweating, wincing through the mix of embarrassment and pain as the building of blisters began. Pretty soon, in a best-case scenario that still totally sucked, the group was moving ahead without waiting for me and another straggler. I gamely tried to keep up polite conversation, more out of an attempt to drown out my inner troll than politeness or friendliness.
Not again, I hoped.
It wasn’t until our first rest break, lounging on rocks to eat breakfast and take in the view, that I realized I wasn’t falling behind or holding anyone back. I had been telling myself all day, for many days, that I was The Absolute Worst in these group fitness situations. But that’s an old story, one I’ve told myself so often and for so long that I don’t even bother to ask if it’s true anymore. I was doing fine, actually. I was as sweaty as everyone else (aside from our agile park rangers, who never seemed to tire or glisten while the rest of us became sodden messes). Aside from not being able to row our raft due to a one-size-fits-some life jacket, I was keeping up and hanging in. The story I was used to telling just didn’t make sense anymore.
That’s a lesson I’m always learning and re-learning. We learn stories by heart, until we know every word, every pause, every dramatic build and poignant moral. We internalize their teachings and use them as lenses by which to view the world. But so often, we forget to look with our own eyes, the eyes that are growing and changing as we grow and change. We forget that stories are different because we are different. It’s worth looking around once in awhile, worth rereading the story.
It’s worth finding out what’s new, and what we can leave behind.