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Stepping Out onto the Edge

By Kaye Olsson, I Start Wondering Columnist

I live in the northwest region of the United States, an area that is prone to wildfires. Every summer we all brace ourselves for the inevitable: the dreaded arrival of “smoke season.” The environmental damage and loss of life after a fire is always heartbreaking to witness, and seeing the charred black remains across the mountains leaves me feeling sad.

As humans, it’s easy to view wildfires as something negative and destructive to be avoided at all costs. Yet, there are certain species of plants that are actually dependent on these fires to stimulate new growth. The extreme heat and burned soil provide the right conditions to awaken their slumbering seeds.

Likewise, I think we experience a similar phenomenon when we find ourselves in a situation that pushes us to our limits and moves us past our comfort zone—our own personal wildfire of sorts. A part of our self lies dormant, until triggered by a crisis or other significant event. In her book This One Wild and Precious Life, author Sarah Wilson refers to this as reaching our “edge.” We come alive when we go to our edge because we are jolted out of complacency, and our brains start building new neural pathways as we learn to adapt.

Fear at the Edge

Photo by Kaye Olsson
Photo by Kaye Olsson

Reaching our personal edge can be unsettling. It forces us to use skills we didn’t even know we possessed. Sickness can do it. Dealing with a natural disaster, death of a loved one, or a global pandemic can definitely take a person to their edge. The edge is at the exposed outer limits, far from the comfortable center our small human selves tend to cling to. The edge is where the elements knock us around, where we’re battered by the winds of truth. 

But the edge is also where we become fully alive. It’s not easy or comfortable, but it’s where the truly big, creative, and meaningful breakthroughs tend to happen.

Dealing with Resistance 

Photo by Kaye Olsson
Photo by Kaye Olsson

Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun and prolific author, advises actively going to one’s edge to reconnect. “Life is a whole journey of meeting your edge again and again,” she writes in The Wisdom of No Escape. She explains that going to your edge, wherever it might be, is essential to personal growth. At the point of our resistance, we become aware we’re fighting, avoiding, shutting down. And that awareness is the openness, the softness, and compassion we need to meet our authentic selves.

The fear. The guilt. The anger. The despair. The overwhelm. Yep, that’s also the edge. But we must fight the urge to run away and we have a responsibility to ourselves to not let this emotional cycle defeat us. As  Pema Chödrön reiterates in When Things Fall Apart, the edge is “where we need to be.”

Each time I have reached my edge, I find myself resisting and asking questions like “Holy crap, how am I going to get through this?” Then I stop and ask, instead, “What if this fear or pain is just life, and I’m meant to learn from it?” As Pema Chödrön put it: “We use these situations either to wake ourselves up or to put ourselves to sleep.”

Trauma and Growth

We often hear about trauma caused by a tragedy or trip to the edge. Yet I was surprised to learn that only a small percentage of people actually develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), despite widespread discussion around it. Up to two-thirds of trauma survivors exhibit, instead, what’s known as post-traumatic growth.  Psychologists have discovered that after a crisis, most people acquire a newfound sense of purpose and develop deeper relationships. The experience of going to our edge causes us to seek meaning, often finding it in the precarious preciousness of life. 

As older women approaching the final chapter of life, we find ourselves at the ultimate edge: confronting death and the fact that it can strike any of us at any time. However, accepting this fact and choosing to walk toward the edge--, instead of away from it--, actually frees us to let go and begin to know ourselves. Standing at the scary edge thrusts us into the present and forces us to examine what really matters.

Finding Your Edge

Photo by Kaye Olsson
Photo by Kaye Olsson

The perception of what constitutes our edge will be different for each of us, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a dramatic event. For example, I recently found myself jumping off a boat into an unfamiliar ocean in order to go snorkeling. For someone else who is a strong swimmer it would have been no big deal but, for me, the experience was fairly terrifying. In the end, though, facing my fear was worth it because I was rewarded with an opportunity to view colorful fish along a spectacular coral reef—definitely not something I could have done sitting safely on the boat.

Perhaps, for you, going to your edge might entail running a marathon or speaking in public. Maybe you say “yes” to an event or opportunity that scares you a little, or you say “no” to someone who is bullying or harassing you. Whatever you choose, I think it’s important to routinely seek out unfamiliar experiences and keep challenging ourselves. It’s just like building a muscle—each time it happens, we grow stronger and increase our endurance so we’re more resilient the next time. It can set in motion a cascade of critical choices over the years—choices that can help us reclaim our voice, our courage, our self- confidence.

When you do step out onto your edge, I urge you to tune into the awareness and aliveness of the moment. Savor how it feels. Stay out there, keep going. Know that you are building resilience and it is entirely purposeful. Remember that all of your previous life experiences have led you to this point and it is exactly where you were meant to be.

1 Comment

Thank you, Kaye, for reminding us to get out of our comfort zone. I've been thinking about this a lot recently and am really sitting with what new challenges I want to accept. The first, obviously, was adopting my new pup Hero--and in doing so, he's opened so many doors for me that I wasn't expecting. So here's to more opportunities to step out to the edge.

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