It was June in Florida during a canoeing expedition.
Our crew was on Final, a phase at the end of a course when students take the lead and work as a team and solve whatever comes their way. Instructors don’t interfere or correct decisions during this phase of the course, but they do help ensure the safety of the group.
It was day 26 of the 28-day canoeing expedition, and we had a 7-mile paddle to the next destination. We were so close to the end of the adventure; I could just feel the cool shower ahead of me. We paddled to part of the river that split, but this split was not on the map. We—the Instructors—knew the right direction, but because the course was in Final, we couldn’t say anything. We had two miles to go to reach our destination. Just two short miles.
After much debate, the crew decided to veer towards the left, which was of course the wrong direction. In my head, I wanted to scream out, “NO! YOU CHOSE THE WRONG WAY! I JUST WANT TO SHOWER!” But that wasn’t my job, I wasn’t here for my comfort or for me. My job was to keep the crew safe, not give them the answers.
We paddled, paddled some more and kept paddling for another almost five miles until it dawned on everyone, this wasn’t the right way. Five was way more than two, something was wrong. Tired and over all of the bugs, we turned around and paddled back to the split and continued until we reached our destination. Instead of seven miles, we paddled a total of 16 miles, which in canoe miles, is a long time!
What happened after we paddled was remarkable. Yes, there was confusion, a little frustration and not to mention total exhaustion. But it didn’t bring the crew down—they had just paddled 16 miles which was the longest stretch of river they had taken on in a single day! They were on cloud 9 and talked about how strong they all had gotten over the entire course. That whole evening was full of stories and laughter. It was clear that their compassion as a group had increased; they didn’t blame anyone for choosing one direction over the other because they were all in it together. In fact, it was because they focused their efforts on one direction that their opportunities to connect began to flourish even more. Yes, they all paddled left when they should’ve paddled right, but they moved as a team through the challenge.
As an Instructor, I often felt like I learned more than the students on a course, particularly that one. Getting through any challenge takes effort. If the crew had just simply paddled to their destination, they would’ve missed the opportunity to practice compassion for each other, to practice resilience, to practice leadership. They would have missed overcoming the largest physical challenge they had experienced. Perhaps day 26 would have been less tiring if they only paddled the seven miles, but would it have been as impactful? I don’t think so. They discovered there was more in them than they knew, and you don’t get that from choosing the easy path!
The reality is life rarely gives us warning signs. In fact, challenges often show up in our lives unannounced and meet us unprepared. Loss. Shifts. Success. It can seem like there’s never a lack of change being thrown at us. And with each fork in the road, we’re given a choice. Do we go through the challenge or do we pass it off to others, blame it on someone else, find an easier path, avoid what’s in front of us, or stay the same?
While we can’t choose when and how challenges come into our lives, we can choose the direction we want to take based on what we want to do with our lives. Take a deep breath when you realize you’re in the challenge. Humans are resilient. We grow, recover, rebuild and encourage ourselves and each other to move forward time after time.
We’ve all experienced hurt/loss/frustration/pain during challenges. They create a new shape for our lives, a shape that can hold more compassion, more love, more empathy. The question we have to ask ourselves is, “who do we want to be coming out of the challenge?”
About the Author
Hanna McCarthy is a former Outward Bound Instructor and now lives and works in Philly with her husband, Nick, and two dogs, Jelly and Waffle. She finds time each year to surf in new places and enjoys spending time with friends and family. Hanna now splits her career between corporate and teaching yoga, finding balance in her life.