I am a one-woman self-help book club. Which is to say, I hoard self-help books and then take nine hundred years to maybe finish them (both things we can talk about another time). Recently I’ve picked up a book that I first started reading in 2007 and never finished. A little diddy called “The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be” by Jack Canfield (of “Chicken Soup for the Soul” fame).
It’s a big one: there are over 450 pages outlining the 64 principles. Back in 2007, I stopped reading somewhere around Principle Five: Believe in Yourself (2007 Raina found the concept to be total horse shit). But this time around, I am really making a dent. I’m already on Principle 15: Experience Your Fear and Take Action Anyway.
This principle is really hitting home. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been anxious as hell lately. Going into the Reinvention of Raina Becker, I knew it wouldn’t be easy and that things would definitely get scary at times. And hot damn was I right. So the timing of this chapter is nothing short of serendipitous.
The chapter explains the nature of fear and then goes on to offer different exercises and techniques to coach yourself past your fears. One of the exercises was to remember a time when you triumphed in the face of fear. Not to brag, but I’ve been through a lot in this life so I have quite the mental file to thumb through. But after some thinking and meditating, I was able to remember a time when I felt the fear and took action anyway.
It was the summer after my freshman year of college. I got a job as a camp counselor at the YMCA in Pittsford, NY. I guess the Y really needed people. Up until that point, my only camp experience was as a camper at the YMCA day camp in downtown Rochester (and only until my sister and I were old enough to stay home by ourselves). But I guess I seemed smart enough, being in college and all. So they hired me, despite my lack of experience, and paired me with their most experience counselor, a dude named Ed.
Ed was that camp counselor: he was the guy who’d been going there since he was five, worked his way up the camp counselor ladder, and now he knew every single thing anyone could ever know about being a camp counselor at Camp Arrowhead. Or at least he acted as though he did. Ed was one of those guys who tried too hard. He looked a little like a Muppet, so he’d overcompensate by trying entirely too hard to be cool, to be smart, and to know everything about camp. He could be bossy, mansplainy, and all-around irritating as shit. You’d want to give him the benefit of the doubt, because he was so clearly insecure, and maybe you could if he wasn’t so damn obnoxious. Our rapport changed by the day; some days I found him endearing, and some days I wanted to punch him in his Muppet face.
Because Ed was the greatest camp counselor who ever lived (and, of course, I knew nothing), he usually dictated what activities we would do each week with our campers. One particular week, when we had a group of 6 – 8 year olds, Ed decided we should take the kids on an epic, day-long hike. He said that we’d take the kids out for a hike, let them eat their lunches in the woods, and then go for a walk in the creek. That was the plan.
So the day of, because that’s the plan, I dressed accordingly. Meanwhile, this fool gets to camp wearing jeans, some kind of relatively nice shirt, and closed-toed, not-water-proof shoes. Basically, he’s wearing the polar-fucking-opposite of whatever outfit a person should wear to walk in the woods and a creek. And on top of that, he had the nerve to be prissy about how he didn’t want to get his clothes dirty. The main selling point of this hike was to let the kids walk in the creek. And now this idiot has dressed in such a way that he can’t walk in the creek. He has made it so that I will be the only adult (adult? please, I was 19) who can walk in the creek with 12 – 15 kids.
So, cool. Let’s do this.
We hiked down towards the creek. While we were still a few feet above it, we stopped to have lunch on the path. The kids ate and talked amongst themselves. Ed was pontificating about life and holding court. I sat in silence because I hated Ed. Good times. When lunch was over, Ed said he’d stay up on the path to clean up and that I should start taking the kids down to the creek. To get from the path to the creek, we needed to gingerly walk down a some-what steep hill. Shocker: on the way down, one kid slipped and scraped his knee or elbow or face on the way down (you’ll have to forgive me, I don’t remember the exact injury).
I was attending to the mild injury on the sobbing child while simultaneously trying to keep an eye on the other children who were just itching to get in the water. They were trying to tip toe closer and closer to the water’s edge. But since I was the only (properly outfitted) adult on hand, I made them wait for me. I would yell at them to stop moving and then deal with the crying kid. And then yell at them to stop trying to get in the water, and then deal with the crying kid.
As I was consoling, the other kids laughed and yelled amongst themselves. I remember hearing the kids yell and not really thinking much of it because kids are loud and crazy. And then I heard Ed yell my name. I looked up the hill where I saw Ed, holding a trash bag in one hand and pointing down at the creek with the other. I turned around to see what he was pointing at.
One of the little girls was floating away in the creek. Her little backpack was floating up behind her head, holding her up as the creek carried her away. And the look of absolute fear on that little face is something I don’t think I will ever forget.
In a split second, without even thinking, I ran into the creek to go after her. I’m sure I was thinking, “The creek is shallow, we’re about to walk in it. She just fell down and can’t stand back up. I will go help her.” She was still floating away in what I assumed was creek-depth water. I was running as fast as I could through the creek to get to her when suddenly the ground under my feet disappeared and I plunged under the cold, dark water.
It was then that I got scared. Really scared. I mean, I can swim, but don’t get me wrong, I’m not good at it. No one’s confusing me with being a strong swimmer. I know the basic strokes; I can swim well enough to not drown. But no, I am not a life guard. I didn’t do any of those swimming tests. In fact, I actually almost drowned at the YMCA as a child trying to pass that swim test where you have to dive down and carry the black brick up to the surface.
And now here I was in a situation where the lives of a child and myself were dependent on my bush-league swimming capabilities.
But I swam as hard as I could to get to her. Luckily, I was swimming with the flow so I was able to get to her pretty quickly. I had a hold of her leg and was able to pull her to me. And by that point, we’d floated to a part of the creek where I was able to stand up. I got her out of the water and my mind was racing. Every film strip I ever watched came rushing back at me. I was trying to remember everything I’d ever heard about first aid and fire safety and CPR. I suddenly remembered that shock was a thing. So I laid her down on the bank and used her sopping wet backpack to prop up her feet because that sounded like a thing I should do.
And then it’s weird; I don’t remember what exactly happened from there. I don’t know what happened to the rest of the kids. I don’t know who took them where. I don’t know who took the little girl who’d been in the creek. The very next thing that I do remember was being alone in the woods with Ed. I was standing there, soaking wet in all of my clothes and shoes, apologizing over and over again, until I finally burst into tears.
Deciding I was too hysterical to be allowed near children, Ed took me back to the main office—where I was almost positive I was going to get fired. Or arrested. We had one of those bosses who was always lurking around, waiting for us to mess up so that he could yell at us. So I was ready for it. But to my great surprise, he didn’t yell at me. You know who did get yelled at?
Ed and his stupid outfit. He really caught an earful about his poor judgment and for creating an unsafe situation (in your Muppet-face, Ed).
The little girl, while scared and shaken up, was physically fine in the end. Her parents were informed of the incident and two weeks later at the next family night, they thanked me for helping their daughter out of the creek. I also received a certificate of achievement and a YMCA lunch bag. So that was cool.
It’s crazy. A million years later, and I can still remember how my legs felt running faster than I could think. And I can VISCERALLY recall the fear that I felt when I fell under the water, realizing that we were in trouble. And when I think about all of the times in my life I have been scared into indecision, I am amazed the 19-year-old me reacted in an instant, kept her shit together, and just kept swimming.
I’d be lying to you if I said I haven’t scared myself into indecision a time or twelve since my retirement. Getting from where you are to where you want to be can feel like a terrifying and impossible venture. But remembering a time when the fear was real and I acted anyway helps me keep going. It’s like that cartoon fish Dory says: When life gets you down you know what you gotta do?
Just keep swimming.