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Strength in Humility
A gasp of air brings a rush of pungent pine into my lungs. My arms sear as I desperately try to push the eight hundred pounds resting against my shoulder up the sharp incline ahead of me. The 1840’s style skirt and apron wrapped around my waist drags in the dirt, as if purposefully trying to entangle my feet in its lengthy arms. Exhaustion and fatigue I previously managed to drive back to the black outskirts of my skull slowly creep forward once again. With sweat and tears cascading down my cheeks, I want to give up. But that isn’t an option. Finally my chance has come to prove that I can be independent – that I can do this alone.
I recently endeavored in a pioneer trek reenactment put on by my church. Aiming to teach the youth of what our pioneer ancestors had gone through 150 years previous in their journey across the plains, the young adults in my congregation, along with a few of their leaders, would trek across the next thirty miles of mountainous terrain, pulling an eight-hundred pound handcart along the way.
Anxiety-filled-excitement hung in the air as we constructed our handcarts and prepared for the journey before us. Upon arriving at our base encampment, dressed up in our pioneer garb, we split into three “companies”, a group of other handcarts to travel and camp with. We then further divided into six “families” within each company. One married adult couple, acting as the “Ma and Pa” of the family, paired up with seven or eight youth making up their children. Remembering the stories of past participants, I knew this trek posed more than a challenge - a physically taxing, spiritually trying, and mentally tiring trial was sure to come.
After a difficult but successful start, the real challenge presented itself. Halfway through the second day, generals approached our resting spot and called the men in our company to join the fight against Mexico in the currently raging Mexican-American War. These greenhorn soldiers would serve in the Mormon Battalion, a military detail later recognized for performing one of the longest marches in U.S. infantry history. Agreeing to this decree, our brothers and fathers slowly marched off with their new commanders - leaving us women to push for ourselves.
Standing in the dust of the troop’s footsteps, I looked ahead at the half mile straight uphill we would soon climb. The resentful sun beat down on my face with a hungry heat, dirt caked my skin still exposed to the elements, and though I knew in other circumstances I would dread this ascent, I realized my chance had come. I felt nothing but excitement. Today in this women’s pull I could prove to those absent men that I had the strength they and others doubted of me. Enough strength to do this alone.
Waiting for the first company to make their ascent, I sat with the remainder of my family as we discussed our plan of attack. We all agreed; as long as we worked together and stayed positive, we could do this. Determination dominated all our thoughts. We would not stop, no matter how slow we were going. We would make it up this hill.
Two-thirds of the way through, women all around me were yelling and crying, pushing themselves further than they had ever imagined. Already I could tell this would prove the hardest experience of my life so far. Though we were doing well, we had slowed pace. The rope heaving the massive load cut into my aching shoulder, boiling sweat on my brow poured into my already stinging eyes, and I could feel the cart growing heavier with every step. But despite all this, I kept going. I could not stop.
However, the women around me did not seem to feel the same - their tears became audible, and their cries even more desperate, when finally, after it seemed like our previous conversation of perseverance had never even been voiced, men and women dressed all in white - reenacting the real angels who had helped our female ancestors in their struggle across the Rocky Mountains, ran to our carts and picked up the slack. They held some girls up; still pushing in the yoke, bringing everyone renewed strength. I could hear the exclamations of joy and gratitude all around me. Women were weeping at the selfless act being performed in front of them. As I heard their gracious cries, a surge of anger in the place that gratitude should have held surged through me. Instead of being thankful for their help, I saw these “angels” as an insult. I felt as though their attempts of help were telling us that we didn’t have what it takes, that we couldn’t do it ourselves. Anger rising, I rashly started yelling and jerking the rope, telling them that they could leave; we didn’t need them. However, harsh chastisement from the girls around me immediately followed – silencing my selfish cries.
I continued on without uttering a word. Infuriated at the right to prove myself snatched away from me. With horror, I recognized my long-parched tear ducts slowly releasing the pent up emotion swelling inside of me.
Upon arriving to our destination to meet up with the boys, I was fuming. We didn’t need their help! Didn’t they see we could have done it alone? I am strong! Can’t someone please realize that?!
I couldn’t face my family. Feeling a thousand emotions at once: outrage for the assumption of failing strength, embarrassment for showing emotional weakness in front of so many people, and exhaustion at the physical feat we all had performed. I had hit breaking point and I didn’t want it to happen here. My whole life I had tried to prove to everyone that I could be independent; I didn’t need help, and my whole life I constantly heard that it simply wasn’t true.
As I was standing to the side, trying to compose myself, my “Ma” came over to talk to me.
“I know why you’re mad.” She said, waiting for reply. I couldn’t muster any response. “You feel like you were told you can’t do this, that you aren’t strong enough. Right?” I still said nothing, not meeting her gaze. “ Sometimes we have to accept help, Sarah. Girls in our family were praying for it, some of them really couldn’t have made it up that hill.” She paused, still hopeful that I would say something. After a few uncomfortable seconds of shuffling and keeping my eyes glued to the dust covered sneakers encasing my worn feet, she hesitantly continued. “Maybe you could have. I wouldn’t doubt it. But can you make it through your whole life alone?” With that she left me to answer the question myself, and walked away.
At once, feelings of shame and guilt flooded through me, replacing the anger with a striking blow. How could I ask God for help then get angry when it came? Even worse, how could I say I didn’t need His help? Or anyone else’s for that matter? I realized something in that moment. The strength that mattered is the one I didn’t have. Strength to admit fault. Strength to admit defeat. Strength to admit that at some point I need to let those I love pick me up when I get thrown down - no matter how much I think I can do alone.