Today’s lesson: Yes, I do have limits.

I had a personal milestone last week — a different kind of {grow} experience — and it wasn’t a very good one.  The story starts with an 8-year-old boy.

Over the past year, I have been a mentor through a program called Amachi which pairs adult role models with children who have a parent in prison. My little boy is Elijah and we have become best friends. I don’t think it is appropriate to say a lot about him but as you might imagine, he has a very challenging life surrounded by stuff no child should ever have to experience.

Elijah’s life is usually contained to an inner city neighborhood and extends about as far as he can safely ride his bike. It is a world without trees, wildlife or open spaces and one of the things I learned is that he loves nature. He is absolutely transformed just by seeing a squirrel or a rabbit. So over his school fall break, it made great sense to take him camping for the first time at one of our state’s amazing parks.

Now one thing about Elijah — he’s a daredevil.  The kid is always pushing his physical limits — and mine!  So when he saw a poster of a person rock-climbing, I knew I was in trouble.  “Can we do that?” he asked.  I tried to explain that you need ropes and special equipment but it was too late — he had that unmistakable, mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

We had an amazing first day at the park with perfect fall weather and ended up at a tall waterfall. Because of our recent drought, there was a 30-foot rock wall exposed that ended at the river above. By the time I had caught up with him on the trail, Elijah had nearly scaled the perilous rock wall.  A chill went down my spine as I saw him throw his leg over the top of the ledge.  He now stood high above me grinning ear-to-ear. My heart dropped.

The rocks were black and slick from the mist of the waterfall and so steep that there was no way he could come back down safely.  Finding another way to the top would mean he would have to stay there alone while I found an alternate path.  My instinct was to go up after him. After all, I’ve spent half my life in the woods and this was familiar territory.

I made it half-way up and realized I was in trouble. For the first time in my life I faced a physical challenge and realized that I was too old and out of shape to do what I could have done a few years ago.  My vision of myself was out of sync with my actual physical capabilities. I still participate in mountain biking, skiing and other physical activities and have surely noticed changes with age, but cannot recall ever facing a point where I was telling myself, “no.”

“I don’t think I can get up there,” I yelled up to Elijah. “I’ll have to find another way to come get you.”

“You can do it,” he said, a little panic rising in his voice. “Remember who you are!”

What I heard was, You are my mentor, my father figure and the guy who can do anything in my eyes.  Don’t leave me here.

So I climbed.  And I fell.

It seemed like I fell a long time, at least long enough for me to say one prayer,”Please God, not my head.”  I had already suffered one spinal cord injury in my life and knew this fall could be catastrophic. What would happen to Elijah if I knocked myself out?

I don’t know how it is possible, but I tumbled down multiple rock ledges and did not hit my head. Every other body part — but not my head. This was a legitimate miracle.

Everything was bruised but adrenaline took over. I told Elijah to literally not move one inch until I found a path to get to him.  And for the past week I have felt like a bruised and crippled old man.

All of this has re-set my view of myself.

How did I put myself in place where a mis-aligned self image and ego endangered me, my family and Elijah?  How could I be so self-deceptive and stupid?

I need to come to terms with my age and physical realities. I hate that.

As I posted last week about my concerns with the implications of “screen saturation” and children, I had to do a gut-check to see if I was expressing a legitimate concern or if I was starting to sound like every other generation before me, lambasting “the youth of today.”  Am I crossing some invisible line here?

These experiences are all natural elements of life transitions yet that makes it no easier to internalize and accept. In an era where we are being bombarded with age-defying advertising themes, how are you dealing with your life transitions?  Have you ever faced a physical or psychological limit yet?

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  • Mark:

    Yes, to both (physical and psyc limits), but my god! you could have killed yourself! Ryan-my son- has been pushing me both physically and ‘mentally’ since he was 16, 2 years ago. The first time I really thought about it was snowboarding with him when he was 16 and he was whipping me…I switched to skis…my comfort zone. Mentally he is tops and tests me at every turn, that is, letting me know ‘it’s a new day’ and the world order is changing..tic tic tic.

    So youth has physical advantage, and minds that {grow}, but as you imply in this piece, youth needs a ‘wave breaker’ to follow. The same is true in business.

    I admire your involvement with Elijah; however, you should probably stay of the rocks, ehh?


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  • Omg, I’m so glad that you’re alright Mark. You got my heart pumping reading this. It sounded so scary and all I wanted to know was what happened, was the boy alright. It was like reading a book from Nicholas Sparks (in his book someone always dies 🙁 )

    But I am glad you’re alright. You’re like a mentor to me. Someone I look up to.

    As for limits, maybe not physically for me… yet.. but mentally yes. So glad you’re alright Mark!

  • Mark, I have never read you before, came here via Gini Dietrich’s tweet but as Aaron said your story captivated me. I was Operations Manager for Wausau Whitewater for 12 years. About 3-4 years ago, I was determined to learn to paddle, not flatwater but whitewater but I never took action. I had some of the world’s best teachers and environment to learn at my finger tips but I never tried because my head said that I could get hurt and then how would I work, write, etc and I placed more value on those things.

    My paddling friends are risk-takers, many often rock climb and I have a good friend who is my age (54) and female who not only paddles very competitively (freestyle) with the guys, but both rock and ice climbs…

    I couldn’t. I am glad you are alright and I admire your courage as a mentor. There are many challenges for young people out there today and many would benefit from someone like you leading, guiding, and mentoring… but probably not on rocks.

    Take care of you and Elijah!

  • Mark,

    I’ve come to grips with the physical aspect of aging. When my now-college students were growing up, I could still control the outcome of sports competitions with them. I now have a 12-year-old who’s nearly 5’8″ and it doesn’t come anywhere near as easy. And that’s disconcerting.

    I think it’s a question of confidence when it comes to the psychological part. What’s going on in the economy has stripped many people of that self-assured attitude that led us through our youth. Whether it’s striking out on your own — either through your own decision or by necessity — I find a lot more things that I’d have done without a second thought now can paralyze me if I’m not careful (or maybe aware).

    I think the answer is continuing to test yourself — to try little things so you rebuild the confidence to try (and overcome or accomplish) big things.

    I too am glad you’re alright. Next time, start with a bit smaller cliff and you’ll be better able to handle the big one further down the path.

  • Mark

    Thanks for the comments — and well wishes! : )

  • Mark,

    I am glad that you are ok! That must have been pretty intense. I’ve had a similar experience in falling down a mountain/cliff and I can totally sympathize and agree that it was NOT fun.

    I didn’t know you mentored with Amachi. That makes me so excited! I’ve done multiple internships with Knoxville Leadership Foundation. I know that Gloria Nolan took one of your classes–she is an awesome person and I am glad to say that it was a pleasure working with her over the summer.

    In any case, I am happy to see you mentoring with Amachi and working w/ Gloria. That is such an awesome cause and it makes my heart happy to know that you do this. Kudos a thousand times over Mark! Thanks for making Knoxville a better place to live and thank you for investing back in her youth!

  • Mark, glad you are Okay. Elijah is one lucky kid. If he learned anything from that moment, I hope it is that he has a friend and mentor who will do anything for him!

  • Yes, you do have limits. But was that the lesson?

    As you unceremoniously bounced from rocky ledge to rocky ledge ~ were you thinking about your limits? Or were you instead doing as Elijah so wisely commanded moments before you gave flight a try: Remember Who You Are!

    As we both know, I have the propensity to define myself by my limitations – leaving me with a rather distorted vision of myself. We are not meant to exist on this planet isolated in our own versions of who we are; that’s one of the things that make relationships so powerful.

    Flipping to Elijah for a moment ~ I imagine there are pockets in his little life where the limitations that define his life are harsh, shameful and spirit crushing. “Son of a convicted felon”. Or, “disadvantaged youth in need of a mentor”.

    And then, he spends time with you – and through your eyes, he knows that he’s an adventurous little boy who thrives in natural settings and is deserving of kindness, attention, exposure to new experiences, love, care, appreciation, protection — and in those moments, he’s thrilled to be in the company of someone who shows him who he is; who he really is, in spite of the circumstances he was born into, over which he had and has little control.

    Now, flip back to bouncing, praying you. As you demonstrated the principles of gravity in action – you were not thinking, “Yep, I’m old.” Or, “This wouldn’t have happened to me this time last year, this time last year I’d already be at the top.” No – you were thinking of the potential impact you might be about to make on all that you do right. Your family’s love and need of you, your work that you love and the clients you desire to enrich, a lovely little boy whose life lights up every time you’re with him.

    Remember Who You Are.

    So, you’re not Spiderman. That job’s taken already anyway. Not only would all those webs wreak havoc with lawn maintenance and plumbing and such – but no mead drinking Viking worth his horned cap would ever be caught, dead or alive, in a blue and red leotard anyway.

    Remember Who You Are.

    Okay, now – to answer your questions: how am I dealing with my life transitions? Depends on the day. Like a pro, though, when I’m reminded who I am.

    Have I ever faced a physical or psychological limit yet? No. (Okay, that’s not true – but I think I’ve taken more of my fair share of comment space already.)

  • Elizabeth Sosnow

    Mark, first and foremost, I’m profoundly grateful that you are ok. The world needs more Mark.

    It may be bruising, but most wake-up calls are necessary. After working through the pain, we begin again. Grateful and stronger for the experience.

    Knowing you a little bit, I know that you will absorb these lessons and continue to grow.

    To me, the incredible gift is that you can share this process with Elijah. In some ways, he’ll benefit even more than you will.

    I’ll be thinking of both of you.


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  • Andria L. Yates

    Oh. This is the first thing I’ve read since getting up, walking the dogs, enjoying the cool air on this lovely fall morning, feeling my age from extra outdoor activity the past few days. Want to say much more, and would prefer to do it in person soon! Will just leave with a grateful heart you are physically ok. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Excellent post for a Sunday, Mark. Good job.

  • I think we all deal with the fear of getting older every day. Look at a society that is so terrified of the signs of aging that teenagers start getting Botox injections, and people cut their bodies and faces to literally not have to face aging.

    Maybe we have such a hard time with age because we have forgotten about the beauty of it? So much wisdom comes with age. So much grace, experience, and kindness. A broader view of the world, a smarter perspective, a lot less Ego. If we celebrated the people who are old now instead of pushing them to the sidelines, maybe we would lose our fear of getting older?

    Look at your experience. I don’t think your Ego was climbing that wall. I think love and concern for your friend Elijah was. That’s what stuck with me when I read your story. You have come to a place in your life where you can give something enormous to a kid who’s had a rough start. I personally can’t think of a bigger gift than nature, and a weekend of adventure and freedom.

    I’m really sorry you fell, and I’m so glad you didn’t get hurt. But you may have found a physical limit of yours by opening the world to someone else. You also inspired me to find the kids in my area who’ve never been to wilderness, and to take them on our next trip.

    Just wanted to tell you because I think you’re a good man who touches a lot of people, and I don’t think you could’ve done what you do when you were 20?

  • Mark

    This is has been a post filled with wonderful insights. I really went back and forth about even posting it after it was written. But that is usually a signal that I need to go ahead and take the risk and do it. I’m so glad I did because you have all helped me learn and grow. I was particularly struck by Dagi’s comment that maybe it was more than ego climbing the wall. That is another way to look at it. And that I was putting myself out there to open the world for another. All good things to consider.

    And yes, I could not have given this gift of mentorship at 20, so I have to accept the physical limitations that come with i.

    Really amazing. Thanks to you all.

  • What I love about your writing Mark, it’s from the heart. It touches and reaches us all because, as so stated in the comments, we all relate to your posts yes, in different ways, but we do. Thank you for sharing this amazing experience.

  • Mark

    @Debbi – Thanks for the nice comment!

  • Hey Mark, A while back, when I went hiking/camping with a friend (who is a successful business person), I noticed he didn’t hesitate to to take risky climbs up trees and cliffs while I wanted no part of it for fear of injury even though I was probably in better physical shape than him.

    I realized later this “fear” did correlate to how I acted in real life and my business since it tended to create boundaries and limitations I set upon myself. Since then, I wouldn’t say I’ve become a daredevil, but I wouldn’t say no, I can’t do that because I’m too old or I’m not physically able to.

    I doubt I would have tried to conquer that slippery hill, though. That takes some serious stones.

  • @Mark, I’m glad to hear that you’re doing okay in spite of the bump. Thank God you were okay! And Elijah too. I guess we all have to conquer battles in our daily lives and my own personal battle has been to try and keep some calm inside my head.

    I am an incredibly creative, energetic person who loves the rush of energy when working 24/7. Trouble is, if I don’t watch it I swing the other way and fall into a dreadful black hole when I’ve used up all my energy. So for me it’s been about learning to find balance to keep going at a relatively high velocity without getting bored and without inviting the black dogs back into my head.

    I wish I’d learned this 20 years ago; it would have made life so much easier.

  • Hi Mark,

    Loved this post. Sorry to hear that you feel and hope you are getting better.

    What I really wanted to say is how I amazing I think it is that you are mentoring this young boy. I wish there were programs like that where I live. I’m hoping to make a difference in someone’s life at some point. I really do.

    Keep up the good work and get well very soon 🙂

  • Mark

    Thank you for your comments and interesting perspectives. It’s turned out to be quite the interesting and enlightening discussion!

  • Jeremy Price

    Mark, like everyone else who has commented on this blog, I am happy to hear you are alive and well. As someone who enjoys the outdoors, it is easy to get caught up in the moment, especially when looking out for someone else. That said, this story is about finding and realizing limitations, but it is also about a level of selflessness…or at least that is my perspective.

    Again, happy to hear you are alive and I look forward to class tomorrow night.

  • Mark, Good grief. Thanks for sharing this life lesson. It’s especially beneficial for the {grow} community that has grown older than we sometimes act or think. All things considered though, I think some of the risks associated with thinking younger than our years, are worth it. I wouldn’t include the fall from that ridge but the “idea” of making the climb was a noble one. And the reason you were in the woods in the first place is too. I’m sure glad to hear you are recovering and thanks for reminding us all to take measure of ourselves and be more careful…but not to quit climbing.

  • Just to clarify, I didn’t mean “not quit climbing” giant, mist-slick, craggy rock walls. I meant “not quit climbing” as a state of mind. Take it easy Mark and I hope you’re feeling better and you and Elijah have moved on to safer activities. I suggest chess lessons 🙂

  • How had I missed this?! Mark, I’m glad you’re okay. Personally I’m kind of terrified of heights, so this post really freaked me out in a number of ways.

    Thanks for sharing this story even though my heart is still racing.

  • Leslie Hetherington

    What a frightening but miraculous story. You demonstrated so many things to Elijah that day: the risks of being a daredevil but also how much you cared for him, which will likely go a long way. Once when I apologized for long working hours to my 12-year-old, he said, “you’re a good mommy because you show me it’s possible to do anything.” He’s now acing a tough university program. You’ve given your mentee this same gift of inspiration to an even greater degree. My your bruises heal and Elijah continue to thrive with you.

  • Mark

    @Leslie Thank for these very kind thoughts. Much appreciated!

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