When we were children, many of us heard our parents say, “If it feels wrong, don’t do it.” That was a way to help us judge right from wrong, that internal compass that kept us on the proper course. Probably those first deciding points were about how we were treating our siblings– at least it was for me. If I didn’t want to share my candy bar with one of my sisters, then the assumption was ‘being selfish’ would feel wrong and I would give them a piece of my Baby Ruth. When I was in elementary school and my circle expanded, it applied to telling my piano teacher the truth. When she’d ask how much I’d practiced, then my parents assumed that ‘stretching the truth’ would not feel right. Surely, I’d tell Mrs. Godfrey how little I’d practiced, playing outside instead of sitting at our piano.
Over the years, I’ve found that the feeling of ‘wrong’ is sometimes hard to discern. What my parents were referring to has gotten mixed in with those uncertain feelings produced by anxiety when I try something new. I’m not talking about something new that would hurt someone, but just behavior to move in a new and challenging direction in my life. While I can mentally evaluate a new venture and see its components rationally, the emotions and the accompanying physical feelings are harder to navigate, especially when I don’t have the advantage of watching someone else go before me.
Sometimes what is unfamiliar can feel wrong because it makes me uncomfortable, raising my anxiety that something bad could happen– so that it feels like getting in trouble as a child for doing something wrong.
Years ago, I took my summer pilgrimage to the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington. I’d decided before that trip to hike Mt. Constitution because at its summit you are at the highest point in Puget Sound. I wanted to experience the view from there.
While I’d read about the park and understood from their website there would be trail maps, when I arrived, that wasn’t the case. Nor was there a park ranger station with staff to ask about the 2.2-mile hike to the top. I had one bottle of water and was not prepared with proper hiking gear. I was also on a very tight schedule because of having to rely on the island bus and ferry system. I felt uneasy with no map of the trail, no one knowing where I was, and my cell phone probably useless in those remote woods.
I walked a short distance up the trail and stopped to ponder what to do. I was flooded with emotions– fear that something could happen like spraining my ankle with no one to help or getting lost because there weren’t many blaze markers to guide my way. The decision had to be made quickly in order to hike to the summit and back in time for the last ferry.
If I went with that lingering guideline, “If it feels wrong, don’t do it,” then I would have returned to the safety of the hostel at Friday Harbor. I had no idea how hard the hike would be for me since it was rated as ‘difficult’ given the incline. I knew the chances of me returning were slim, and if I walked away, I would probably never see that sight of Puget Sound.
I decided to go forward in spite of feeling scared and uncertain– two emotions that definitely didn’t feel right. After almost an hour of hiking through the ginormous Douglas fir trees, and areas that looked like a fairytale forest with fallen trees blanketed in moss, I passed other hikers who reassured me.
I made it to the top, climbed up on the overlook tower, and couldn’t believe the expansive scene below with the little islands dotting the sound and snow-capped Mt. Baker. Thank God I made it to this magnificent place, I thought, and felt rewarded for taking a risk.
Sometimes doing something that’s unfamiliar that creates anxiety, doesn’t pay off like that hike. But from where I stand now, I’m glad that I’m beginning to distinguish between what feels wrong as gauged by my moral compass versus the discomfort of stepping out into the unknown. If I’d continued to confuse those feelings, I may never have taken the risks of going on yearly pilgrimages, that unknown that is now familiar.
How about you?
In what ways have you confused a feeling that’s new for you with one that you may have been warned about?
How would pushing beyond that uncertainty benefit your life?