I had not heard of the term “stretch role” until my mother told me that her employer had given her one. Although I’m usually a supporter of experiential learning, I was somewhat suspicious of her new stretch assignment. It sounded like a lot of extra work for very little reward.
“Wait – they’re giving you more work, but are they giving you more pay?” I asked her, totally missing the point. She communicated the concept behind the stretch assignment: to provide the individual with an opportunity to acquire greater knowledge, develop new skills, cultivate growth, and to demonstrate his or her capabilities for future advancement.
I nearly forgot about stretch positions until a few weeks later, sitting on the edge of a raft in the middle of the Deschutes River in central Oregon. Around the same time my mother had told me about her stretch assignment, she expressed to my sister, Sarah, that whitewater rafting was on her “bucket list” of things to accomplish. In no time Sarah called me to validate her enthusiasm for a weekend girls’ trip that included rafting thirteen miles through Oregon’s breathtaking high desert. I could picture the sparkle in her hazel eyes as I listened to the interest in her voice. “Why waste time?” she gushed “Let’s do this!” No persuasion needed. I was on board.
Surprisingly, Mom was less eager to cross something off her bucket list. As the adventure approached, she confessed to me that although she really did want to raft, she was also quite nervous. She recalled a trip from her youth when she and friends had been on the water without a guide, experience or life jackets. Their raft flipped and trapped a young man beneath it for a very long time. He survived, but the experience had scared her and she never went rafting again.
I cringed remembering my initial reaction to my mother’s anxiety: I had slapped her on the back and said, “Don’t worry; we’ll have a guide, and I’m sure they’ll put a life jacket on you and give you some instructions.” I was ashamed that I had made light of her worry and I knew that my less-than-empathic response belied my counseling studies. From the front of the raft I looked over my left shoulder at her, “Are you doing okay?” I asked. She gave me a smile and said, “I’m fine,” but I read the uncertainty in her eyes.
The first series of rapids were relatively gentle. Within moments of bouncing and splashing over folding water, we were released back into the smooth current. Over time, we relaxed into the raft and fell in synchronous motion with each other. Sarah was cool like the water; she had done this before. I watched my mother grow more confident as we conquered each series of rapids.
I recalled my mother’s stretch assignment and contemplated the similarity between professional stretch roles and stepping beyond personal comfort zones into regions of discomfort and vulnerability where growth happens. I’m grateful that the magnitude of my mother’s courage was not entirely lost on me, although I was slow to recognize and appreciate it. It took being on the edge of our seats, outside of her security, for me to realize the value of my mother’s effort on the river. I was convicted.
My thoughts were interrupted by our guide, Virginia. She communicated the rapids we still had ahead, Oak Springs, which was churning at a Class III+. She compelled us to practice crouching down in the raft. Once satisfied with our rehearsal she steered us into position above the rapids.
“All forward!” Virginia shouted from behind. A companion counted “1-2-1-2!” With powerful strokes we rowed in unison, speeding toward the edge of the rapids by our work and the increasing pace of the river. I held my breath.
The past couple of years have been bleak. In the wake of a loss and an attempt to manage my PTSD-like symptoms, I retreated into a very small comfort zone and set up camp. I’m not complaining; I like to camp. My comfort zone is predictable, safe, and I can control it. Outside of camp? That place is scary as hell. I get anxiety just thinking about what lies beyond. What if the same thing were to happen again? What if it doesn’t? What if I were to accept it as a part of my identity? What if I don’t? What if this is all there is? What if there’s more?
Oak Springs is reminiscent of a waterfall and I didn’t realize that we were about to fall over until it was too late. Smooth water turns in on itself: crashing, roaring. We faced the rapid’s assault and held our own. We paused rowing only briefly and were quick to resume, powerfully working to combat the rapid’s strong pull. We kept rowing until the crashing became boiling and the boiling gave way to smooth water.
“All stop!” Virginia directed as we moved into a calm spot of river. We had made it successfully through the most difficult rapid of the day. I breathed deep and looked back at my mother. She was beaming. I was inspired.
My mother modeled a valuable lesson for me on the river. She taught me that it’s okay to be afraid of putting yourself out there; it’s not okay to let fear rob you of a richer experience. In her case, she climbed into a raft not knowing what the rapids would produce, but she did it anyway and she loved the ride.
I know that my stretch work may be uncomfortable, unpredictable, and quite possibly unsafe. It will require vulnerability and certainly involve risk. It’s where my “what ifs” may be answered, though I accept the possibility that they may not. Out there was where my spirit was broken, but it’s also the place where my soul will be rebuilt. I am both nervous and curious. Although I recoil at the thought of risk, I cannot bear the unknown any longer. On an intimate level, this shift is monumental: I’m willing to get my feet wet.
Leah Chambers is a counseling student and intern at New Vision Wilderness who lives in Bend, OR.