Back in June, I got a new bike. The old adage claims that you never forget how to ride one, but having not regularly ridden since early childhood, getting out on it felt like relearning a long lost skill. I also quickly learnt that my hometown’s geography is not at all what I thought it was. I grew up on the hilly side of town therefore believed that the opposite side (where I now live) is completely flat. Oh no, that is not the case! Turns out the flat side is pretty undulating too. I’m constantly moving up and down the gears as I negotiate the inclines, descents, humps, bumps and adverse cambers (the latter isn’t really relevant but I like the phrase ‘adverse camber’ and don’t get enough opportunities to use it).
My regular route from home to town includes going over a railway bridge. When I started riding, this posed a big challenge. On my first attempt, I had to get off and push the bike over. I then began gingerly creeping over in first gear and on the path, convinced that I had sudden onset asthma every time. Soon my speed and confidence increased. Three months on, I stay on the road and in fourth for the outward journey; on the return, I still go into second or even first but it gets easier every time.
Because I’m stronger and fitter now than I was then. Every time I cycle, my leg muscles gain a little bit extra strength. It may not be a big increase, but it all adds up.
Initially, I would only feel the burn in my calves. It seemed like they were the only part of my leg responsible for pushing the pedals around. Gradually I started to sense the contribution made by my hamstrings, then my gluteal muscles (the backs of my thighs and my ass). More recently, my quadriceps (the muscles at the front of my thighs) have been making their presence known as I come back over the bridge ever more powerfully.
All these different muscles, and no doubt a number of others, are at work when I cycle. Sometimes it might feel like it’s all down to one particular set but the truth is we rarely rely on one alone.
The same applies to our metaphorical muscles. Last week I wrote about feeling the fear and forcing ourselves to do it anyway. I talked about how using fear as a motivation for action was like flexing a muscle – the more we do it, the stronger it grows. Now I see that this face-the-fear muscle doesn’t operate in isolation. Like the muscles that make up my calves, thighs and bottom, the face-the-fear muscle works alongside that which drives courage.
Facing fear and building courage are in tandem. Using one strengthens the other too, and together they are what really get us out of our comfort zones. And if we use them regularly enough, they gain the kind of strength and momentum needed to get you where you really want to go. They become more powerful every time you flex them, however small the particular incident may seem.
I’ve been drawing on this power duo a lot lately, pushing my comfort zone in many ways. I’ve taken up netball (last played at school) and started to learn Italian. I’ve booked a train ticket to meet up with some other girl bosses that I only know via Facebook. I’ve submitted a piece of writing and am collaborating on another creative project. Some of these activities feel more nerve-wracking than others. Italian is largely fun (even if I do want to get fifteen out of fifteen on every. single. test.); putting my work out into the world is gut-wrenching.
Yet each time I push the boundaries of where I feel comfortable, something great happens. I can’t say it gets easier, but it doesn’t feel quite so hard. It might be unpleasant, uncomfortable, challenging, but I know I can survive it – I know because I’ve been through it, or something similar, before. I’ll get through to the other side and will be stronger for it.
Courage is fear’s nemesis. To face our fear, we draw on courage too – and that very same courage will also help to quash fear just that little bit more. Like when riding a bike, we don’t use just one muscle but pairs or even groups of them. Facing our fear and using our courage is a great combination. Together they will get us over so many of the bridges and hills that we have to climb.