On a crisp, clear winter evening, my daughter and I rode the ski lift to the top of the mountain. She wanted to try one of the intermediate blue square trails at the back. I was hesitant, because it was early in the season, and we had only attempted a blue square once or twice toward the end of the previous season. I wasn’t sure if she was up for it yet, but she wanted to try, so I encouraged her, and we skied toward the mildest blue square trail.
When we reached the trailhead, we discovered the race team practicing there. We were no longer in a position to turn back to a safer green circle, so we had to attempt a more challenging hill, one she had never skied before. I told her to take it very slowly, make lots of big turns, and that I would be right behind her. She was afraid, but I encouraged her to keep moving forward.
She made it about half way down when an unexpected bump set her off balance, and I watched her tumble for a few terrifying seconds, skis releasing from her boots. I rushed to her. She was stunned when I reached her, and when she saw me she started to cry. She was able to move her legs and sit up, so I reassured her she was OK, and I gathered her skis, lining them up perpendicular to the slope so she could rise and try again.
“I’m not going to do it,” she said.
“Ellen, we have to get to the bottom of the hill. We don’t have to ski this one again, but we do need to finish. Come on, let’s get your skis back on and try. I’m right here. I won’t let you fall again.”
“No. I am not going.”
She was angry and immovable. I tried to patiently reassure her of her safety for the first two rounds of this conversation, and then my patience started to wane, and I confess I started to yell at her.
“Get up! I’m going to count down from five, and you need to start putting your skis back on.”
This was grossly ineffective. I had no leverage to convince her to do what I wanted her to do. Each repetition of the conversation stubbornly entrenched our heels deeper into our respective opinions of what was to happen next on that snowy mountain.
We sat there long enough that a ski patrolman approached to ask if we were OK. He also encouraged my daughter to get up and put her skis on, but when she refused, he took an entirely different tactic than I had taken. He told her she didn’t have to put her skis on if she didn’t want to. He offered to take off his own skis and walk with her down the mountain, explaining it would be faster and easier to ski, explaining she had actually already accomplished the hardest part, but reassuring if she didn’t feel comfortable with that, we could just walk.
He looked at me with kind eyes and said, “She’s afraid. I have been teaching people to ski for a long time, and when someone is afraid, you can’t convince them not to be.”
It was such a simple statement. I was so thankful that someone patient and kind had pointed out such a simple truth. We stood there a while longer while he told me stories of teaching his own kids to ski, kids who are now grown with kids of their own. I realized my anger and impatience were also rooted in fear, and his kind stories not only gave Ellen space to work through her fear, but it alleviated mine as well. My fears and anger were born in guilt and a sense of responsibility for putting her in a position where she wasn’t safe, and my impatience was because I wanted to reverse the results of that decision as quickly as possible. To alleviate fear in this person I love, and to reach a peaceful solution, I needed to acknowledge those feelings in myself while offering compromise, safety, comfort, and empowerment to my daughter.
After a few minutes, Ellen chose to walk down the remainder of the mountain. The man and I removed our skis. He carried hers, and she used her poles to hike the rest of the way down. When the bottom was in sight, she voluntarily took her skis back from our helper, put them on, and skied the rest of the way down.
When we truly love others; when our wish is for unity, inclusion, and cooperation, everyone must feel safe. Anger at fear does not alleviate it. We need to ask ourselves what are our real goals? Is the reason we are feeling angry at someone’s fear because we are also fearful? Or is it because we feel responsible for that fear, and as loving people, we don’t want to be hurtful to others? Do we want people to see things our way, or do we want to truly know each other better so we can provide for each other the tools to feel safe?
I want to know each other better.
I want to feel safe, and I want you to feel safe, too.