The Last Step

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The WCG’s depiction of his climb

On our visit to Cambodia a couple of months ago to see the WCG (don’t worry, we saw his parents and our other kids in Cambodia, too), we went to a magnificent, magical, and mystical place for kids. No, Disney Cambodia isn’t (yet?) a reality, this place is called Kids City.

Kids City is ten-stories of fun. Laser tag, go-karts, bumper cars, playgrounds, science galleries, and plenty of other thrills for kids of all ages. And… clip-and-climb.

Clip-and-climb is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a climbing gym with all manner of different climbing stations. The climber puts on a harness, clips onto an auto-tightening rope at the chosen station, and heads for the clouds. When they get to the top they just jump off and the rope slowly lowers them, a few feet at a time. If they slip or accidentally let go while climbing, same thing — the rope gently lowers them, and they can try again. Or move on to another station.

On this particular day, one of the stations the WCG decided to try was called “Stairway to Heaven”. (We’ll leave for now that a Khmer kid park is referencing a 44-year-old baby boomer rock song.) S2H was not a climbing “wall” like most of the other stations. Instead, it was a series of thirteen solid cylindrical green columns that steadily increased in height, beginning at around eighteen inches high and ending up twenty to twenty-five feet off the ground. They were around ten inches in diameter (enough for two feet side-by-side, but barely), spaced fifteen to eighteen inches apart, and they made a lazy “c” shape around the floor. The object, of course, was to step onto each in turn until you were on the top-most one, twenty-plus feet off the ground.

The WCG started strong, paused about halfway up to count the ones remaining and make a few comments to the peanut gallery, and continued stepping up and over until he got the next-to-the-last one. And then he stopped. He decided twelve was a nice round number, and he didn’t really need to fill out the baker’s dozen.

The parents and grandparents (ahem) all urged him to go on. “One more!”, “You can do it!”, and other words of encouragement can be heard on the video. He was already talking about one of the other stations, ready to move on, but the rest of the crowd was focused on this one. It took a good twenty seconds to convince him to go on (“You won’t fall” was one helpful comment), but go on he finally did. “You’re the champion of the world!”, I told him when he landed at ground level, but he was still a little shaky as I said it.

A successful climb. He made it all the way to the top, just needed a little encouragement, it wasn’t that big a deal, right?

And then I climbed it.

Each station has three difficulty levels: easy (however you can get up there), medium, and hard. The medium one for S2H was to not use your hands, so I proceeded stepping up, making sure I was balanced, then stepping up to the next one. Things went fine until about the fourth one from the end, which wobbled a little when I landed on it. “It move but won’t fall,” yelled the Khmer kid (he’s less than 35, he’s a kid) that worked there, which wasn’t quite as comforting as he probably intended it to be.

Suddenly I was at the penultimate column. As already mentioned, this was no big deal, right? Just another step, same as the dozen that had come before it. I could be Champion of the World, too, or King of the World, or Lead of the Zeppelins, or something. All I had to do was take the last step.

My memory is a little fuzzy on this, but I think the words of the climbing station’s namesake song might have been running through my head at that moment.

There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving.

In each of the previous steps, there was a second column in my peripheral vision beyond the one I was stepping up to. Since that one was taller than the one I was going to, which in turn was taller than the one I was on, that second one dominated my peripheral vision. Heck, it almost dominated my vision, period.

Now, there was a big bag of nothing out there. There was the one I was stepping to and … space (the final frontier). All of this was of course lost to the people on the ground — the columns were eighteen feet and up by now, and so the incremental height to the next column looked like nothing. I’m sure they were yelling encouraging(?) words, but I don’t remember any of them. I don’t remember much of anything except that big blank space beyond the last column. The fact that I was tied off had absolutely no bearing on my mental state at all.

I did take the last step, but I’m almost positive that I took longer to do so than the WCG did. In taking it, I was reminded of a couple of things that I knew but had obviously forgotten:

  • One, perspective matters. No matter how much we think we can see someone else’s perspective, we can’t. No matter how much we think we know what they’re going through, we don’t. No matter how closely we think we can identify with them, we can’t. When the WCG was the one in the air and I was the one on the ground, I had no appreciation or understanding of what he was facing, but I thought I did.We can empathize with someone without having to feel we know exactly what they’re going through. We can encourage someone without having to see exactly what they’re seeing. We can grieve, or rejoice, with someone without having to feel their exact emotions.What we have to be mindful of is minimizing what they see, of discounting what they feel, of assuming that our experiences are enough to evaluate their present condition. “I know exactly how you feel” and “I know exactly what you’re going through” are words that should never leave our lips, or even enter our minds. We don’t, and we can’t.
  • Two, a lot of attention is paid to the metaphorical first step, but probably not enough to the last one. It can be a doozy. Taking the first step is important, but just because the first one is taken doesn’t mean the last one will be. We need to walk along with others during their entire journey, not just the first few steps. We need to recognize that finishing is hard, that it takes more than momentum to keep moving forward, and that sometimes we (and others) need help taking that last step.

Finally, the next time there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now.

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