I mention often that I was a shy kid–I mean painfully shy. People are usually surprised to hear that because, well, let’s just say I’ve come a long way.
I thought I might share a story from my childhood that offers a glimpse into that timid little girl I keep referencing. And maybe I can offer some hope to my still-shy friends out there trying to move from observation to participation, no matter how old they might be.
One cold Pennsylvania afternoon when I was six or so, my mom took us to an “open gym day” at Penn State where kids could play on some of the University’s gymnastics equipment. Parents sat on wooden bleachers from the 1950s, keeping a watchful eye as their spawn depleted the combustible energy surging through their small frames.
My older brother, Matt, handed off his coat and gloves before we even entered the gym. For him, the clock was ticking and not a second of precious playtime was to be wasted. Without reservation, he gleefully entered and indulged in all that was offered to him.
I on the other hand approached the big room timidly, only comfortable to remain in my mother’s shadow. Finding a seat next to her on those wooden bleachers, I unpacked my art bag (this pre-iPad kid used to have a light blue tote with a giant brownish-red robin on the front that we ingeniously called “The Bird Bag”). It was a portable art station of sorts full of coloring books, crayons, sketch pads and little puzzles or games.
Friend, occupying myself has never been a problem for me.
I sat glued to my mother’s side because the thought of arriving and jumping right in like Matt had done so stinking effortlessly made me panic. I needed to be a wallflower; to observe the room, gauge the temperature, and assess the other kids by observation to see if one might appear safe enough for potential friendship.
Every now and then, I’d look up from whatever creative expression I’d lost myself in and watch the other kids play. I noticed Matt had met a friend and they looked like they were having fun.
Try it out, I thought. It looks fun.
But I sat paralyzed in the comfort of my own introverted activity. I couldn’t speak up or move.
I kept thinking, I want to try.
But the distance from the bleachers to the gym floor felt cavernous. I felt safe in my seat observing and I didn’t know how to get started in participating.
After nearly two hours of sitting quietly and watching the fun happen right before my eyes, I decided that I was ready.
“Mommy,” I said very quietly, making sure that the woman my mom was talking with couldn’t hear me. What I was about to say was bold, brave and vulnerable. After all, I’d been mustering up the courage for this very moment for two full hours.
“I’m ready to go play now,” I said in my mousey six-year-old voice.
My mother looked baffled. I should mention that she had checked in on me multiple times during those two hours, asking if I wanted to go and play. I had repeatedly declined her offer.
She looked at the gym floor where the equipment was beginning to get packed up and then back at me. I can still see the conflict on her face. She, using logic I did not yet possess, was most likely thinking, Are you serious? You had all this time kid. The gig is up, you missed your chance!
Instead, she graciously said, “Oh sweetie. I’m sorry, but it’s ending. They’re cleaning up and it’s time for us to go home now.”
I could feel my resolve deepen and the tears swelling in my eyes. This was not okay with me.
“But I’m ready to play now,” I said–louder this time. I realized then that I didn’t care who heard me. I was finally speaking what was true and I saw my opportunity slipping away. I had wanted to play all along, but I was scared and didn’t know how to start. I hadn’t been ready, but now I was!
Don’t take this from me, I thought. My insides screamed, DO SOMETHING!
As tears persisted, I tried to problem-solve in order to get my way.
“Can you ask them if I can play for just a few minutes?” I asked my mom, panic rising. I could see her entertain the thought for a flash, if only as an option to prevent my impending meltdown. Again, looking at the gym floor then back at me, she tried to muster some sympathy despite confusion over my tardy change of heart.
“No honey. I’m sorry, but it’s over now.” With a gentle sternness she added, “You had a lot of time to decide differently.”
It’s strange for me to share that story.
Yes, I’ve come a long way. But that timid little girl still shows up sometimes. I still experience fear and wage an internal war about speaking up, stepping in or participating in certain things.
I’ve learned from the many times I didn’t speak up or participate that I wish I would have. I also learn from the times I do jump in or speak up in spite of my fear. As it turns out, despite what my fear tells me, it doesn’t kill me. In fact, I feel more alive every time!
I remember what my mother had said: You can choose differently.
God is so generous with the opportunities He gives us; He is not running short on them. So if one, two or many chances to be bold have passed you by, start looking for the next one that comes and try to choose differently.
At the very least, you may learn something about yourself. And you might be surprised that once you start being bold in small ways, countless new opportunities present themselves to you.
You have a unique voice, perspective, and skill set…the world needs to hear from you! Face your fears and join the party! You don’t have to be perfect or the best at everything you try. Be curious, be okay with failing, and learn to ask questions about what works or what doesn’t.
After all, we don’t participate to win or be the best–those are just exciting bonuses when they happen. We participate for the joy of being part of something beyond ourselves.
Written by Stephanie Skipper, ROOTS Voice Mentor