What's Next on the Road Ahead?
“If ever there is a tomorrow when we’re not together…
There is something you must always remember.
You are braver than you believe,
Stronger than you seem,
And smarter than you think.
But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart,
I’ll always be with you.”
~A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh~
Have you ever been on an off-road adventure?
You might have gone to a place that specializes in these unpaved experiences. There may have been a guide, a padded vehicle, a helmet, etc. If you’re an adventure seeker, you might have heard laughs and screams of delight as the driver intentionally steered off the road where things got bumpy on rough terrain.
Life’s off-road adventures are often unexpected rather than planned adventures – there’s an element of surprise that can make us feel out of control. We may find ourselves sitting forward in our seats, gripping the steering wheel a little tighter and staring wide-eyed as we focus on the road ahead. The non-stop bumps can cause us to grow weary as we seek smoother paths, answers, comfort and connection.
The past few months may have felt like that for many of us. Due to COVID-19, we have been experiencing a collective “off-road moment”—one of those times when life delivers an unexpected twist or turn that makes us feel momentarily out of control. These moments can be positive in nature (e.g., an unexpected job promotion or engagement) or they can surprise us with news we’d rather not receive (e.g., a job loss, illness or loss of a loved one).
Let’s explore the off-road together – they hold moments that bind us together and hold positive lessons that can help us navigate the road ahead.
Will you travel with me on the Road to Hana on the island of Maui? It might be a lovely distraction as we stay quarantined in our homes - and it taught me my first lessons about the off-road.
A Dream Vacation Turns into an Off-Road Adventure
My husband and I had no intention of traveling the mountainous back roads of Maui in a small rental car ill-equipped for a bumpy off-road experience, but there we were.
We had spent several nights in Hana – a gorgeous, natural environment filled with red beaches, black beaches, volcanos, bamboo forests and so much more. To get to Hana one must travel the famous “Road to Hana” – a skinny paved road filled with tight, one-lane hairpin turns and breath-taking natural wonders. After travelling it once, I was more than enthusiastic to return home another route – one road circles the island of Maui – there’s no tunnel through the volcanos and so we decided to travel back to the airport on the back side of the island.
The evidence suggested this was a bad idea. The map was sketchy and it clearly indicated no road – our rental car company advised no traveling on the back side of Maui – but the locals bolstered our confidence with the knowledge that they did it all the time – so there we were.
With no clear map or working navigation system, we began driving on a one-lane, unpaved road up the mountain that promised scenes from an elevation of 10,000 feet – the incline was so steep and there were times when we doubted that our 4-cylinder rental car would make it up the mountain. We understood now why the rental car company advised against the trip and we hoped we would be able to make it!
We were pretty far into our journey – too far to turn back – when we began doubting our decision. Surely this crazy road would soon bring us to a wider, safer version but it kept getting worse. I know my husband appreciated my constant suggestions about how to drive on such a treacherous road – I invented so many different ways of saying, “there’s no shame in going slow” and I am sure he appreciated each one.
We seemed to be reaching the worst part of our 10,000 foot climb – on one side of the thin single-lane weaving road, a cliff dropped to the ocean. With no guardrail to protect us from falling off the side of the mountain, we hugged the rugged rocks on the safe side of the road. I’m sure the view was lovely – I was afraid to look anywhere but the road ahead because we were heading into a sharp blind curve. We had no certainty that there was a road ahead and we didn’t know what was on the other side.
As the sweat dripped down my back and my feet dug into the floor, it was tempting to give up. I silently ran through the options: back down the treacherous road, hug the rugged rocks on the “safe side” forever or drive forward into the unknown.
As tempting as it was to hug the mountain for the rest of my life, I knew that I wanted to go home. So I began to pray, “Please make this curvy road stop.”
The Two Choices Become Clear
The answer came pretty quickly – there were clearly only two choices:
(1) Move backwards. The road behind us was filled with winding, one lane, hairpin turns. Backtracking did not seem like a viable option. Quite frankly, moving backwards was scarier than moving forward. The road was so curvy, I don’t know if we could have done it.
(2) Move forward. The road ahead seemed to drop off into the sky. My best hope was that there actually was a road ahead. Moving forward was the only viable option - we didn’t even need to talk about it.
We held our breath and kept driving.
We were finally travelling on a flat, paved, two-lane road feeling victorious – when we encountered one more obstacle.
We looked ahead and saw that a section of boulders had dropped from the mountain and demolished a section of the road ahead – there was no road – only huge boulders. To this day, neither my husband or I can remember how our car got “airlifted” over the boulderous section that led to a paved road that offered safe, clear passage and certainty.
Lessons from the Off-Road
Our little off-road adventure taught me at least three life lessons.
First, I learned that when it comes to the off-road, we generally have two choices—we can move forward or we can travel backward. While staying in place is an option, the lack of movement can make many of us feel stuck in place. And while it is sometimes scary and unpredictable, the path forward promises something new and can be incredibly rewarding.
Second, we don’t always receive complete information about the path that takes us from here to there. Often, we encounter unexpected twists and turns. Having a vision for where we’d like to end up is important; then we need to focus on the next 1-2 steps and readjust our compass as new information presents itself. As my mother used to say, “Take it one step at a time – one day at a time.” It’s often advisable to focus on taking the next step.
Finally, speed is not a factor. If we are inching forward, we are making progress. There will always be someone moving faster and someone moving slower. We may not be able to see all the steps ahead of us, but it is important to keep moving forward. As long as you keep moving forward, you will not lose momentum.
As you read this, I hope that you, your families and all you hold dear are safe and well. The off-road moments we are experiencing right now are teaching us lessons we can’t yet imagine. I know that I am learning more about what reallymatters. I’m noticing things I might have taken for granted before – the birds singing, the tiny inchworm and turtle in the garden, the beautiful yard that’s big enough for a crowd but holds only two.
Like you, I miss my family and friends. I miss my routine. I miss my clients. Yet I know that this time is teaching us lessons yet to be imagined. It’s a time to reset, reimagine, reaffirm, refine and reflect. Sometimes, we need to drive forward with confidence and bravery – whether we feel it or not.
You are braver than you know – stronger than you can imagine – and we will get to the other side.
Let the off-road propel you.
Acknowledgement: I want to thank Sherry Anderson, Editor of Kappa Delta Sorority's The Angelos for early edits to this article. A version will appear in the Summer edition of The Angelos with a special message for my sisters in Kappa Delta who are leaders in our families, communities, corporations, nonprofits and more.
© Kathy Sturgis, Ph.D. Kathy lives in North Carolina where she is an organizational and personal development expert, retreat leader, keynote speaker and author who helps others safely navigate their challenges. As Founder and CEO of Refreshment Zone, she reinvigorates people, systems and processes. She is also author of a children's book, Dance of the Chameleon, and will soon publish a compilation of her writings that appear on www.RefreshmentZone.com.