Steps Back are Not Setbacks: Finding Solid Ground Can Be Essential
We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.
—Charles R. Swindoll
In my twenty-first year in 1971 some buddies and I trekked out about sixty miles on a very broad dirt road between Preston and Scottsdale, Arizona leaving us at 4 AM at the top of Hualapai Hilltop above the South rim of the Grand Canyon. Putting on our gear of backpacks, water bottles and so on, and after the bright blue false dawn and the slow rising of the sun, we began descending the trail that met up with Havasu Creek, past Havasupai Indian Reservation and Supai Indian village, and through several of the largest, most beautiful waterfalls in the Grand Canyon. First was the Polynesia-like and thunderous Havasu Falls that we swam and splashed in, feeling like we'd been reborn in a water paradise.
Down the trail loomed Mooney Falls that the Supai Indians had named in honor of a miner of this name who found a very fast and fatal way down the approximate 175 foot high descent, given there was no accessible way down. When we arrived there, what greeted us was a remarkably steep descent that in places had a dynamited trail with steel pegs drilled into rock at particularly difficult byways. The idea was to hold onto two pegs and reach for the third peg while balancing your backpack weighing fully loaded in those days some sixty pounds along with boots that weighed another five pounds. When I came to the first hold two pegs and reach for a third, all seemed to go well. About some 150 feet above I came to the second such maneuver, but this time things didn't go so smoothly. In reaching for the third peg, one of my boots started to slip on the dirt and gravel and I distinctly remember hovering in thin air.
This was a moment like no other I had ever experienced before or since. I was incredibly present in timelessness and hushed silence. It could have gone either way it seemed. Fortunately, I was able to scramble back to my two steel pegs and simply sat there in astonishment. There is a vague remembrance of one of my friends saying to take my time. I was speechless in scoping the situation before proceeding, feeling so blessed to still be alive. As I sat lost in shock, it seemed unlikely I would have survived the fall.
Somehow I took a deep breath of two, pulled myself together and continued. There was also a rope ladder to slide down and further twists and turns to get to the base of the falls. From there we made our way on the relatively easy hiking trail to the Colorado River. Later we hiked back, with the last leg being at night under full moonlight. I've never forgot a detail of what a thin thread my life had hung by.
It was years later that I was able to digest and gleam the wisdom from that moment of hovering on the trail down Mooney Falls. As a therapist people often come to me when they feel distressed and distraught, disheartened and disillusioned, with their lives. Without exception, every one who calls and shows up feels stuck in their life and often voice, "I simply cannot live like this anymore," since each experiences merely existing, and not really living. The therapeutic journey of authentic growth tends to be a stutter-step with taking a step or two forward and then retrenching a half-step or so, and then moving forward again a couple of steps to only take another step back. Moving in this way, it is easy and par for the course to get discouraged, negative and defeated at times of experiencing such back steps.
It is precisely at this juncture when I tell this story. The punch line at the critical moment of hovering in mid-air 150 feet above the ground on the steep trail down to the base of Mooney Falls is this: a step back to gain more solid footing can be essential and is not the same as a setback! A lapse is not necessarily a relapse or going back to square one. Obviously I had missed something in how I was balancing my body, weight and gear. Here was the opening to take another look and be most practically adaptive to reality in this moment. Taking that constructive back step was exactly the great opportunity to grow brilliantly disguised as a life-threatening situation. The forward steps, and particularly the back steps, play starring roles along the learning curve of true sustaining growth. Good news this is, indeed.