Walking the Bench: The Four Outcomes That Shape Who We Are

I often think about my kids’ future. I have moments of worry. But I also have moments of sheer excitement. They have their whole lives before them. The possibilities are limitless.

Our youngest, Gabby, is a good example of what I mean. She’s a year and a half old. She hasn’t started school. Contrary to her name, she’s not much of a conversationalist. She hasn’t decided much of anything in life beyond which garbage can to dump first — the bathroom or the bedroom. For all intents and purposes, she is at the very beginning of life.

So I look at her and I think. I imagine. I wonder what she might look like as an adult. Not so much in the literal sense — though that’s intriguing too — but more like “what will her life look like?” What kind of person will she be? What profession will she have? How well will those answers match up with her goals and dreams?

Most importantly, I wonder whether she will feel fulfilled. Will she be happy? If she is going to create a life that brings her happiness, I think about how she might get there. What might that road look like?

Gabby’s Adventure on the Bench

Not long ago we were at a restaurant waiting to be seated. I watched as Gabby climbed on the bench across from me. She started at one end, and slowly crawled along, stopping only to steal a glance back at her mom and me. I think she looked for approval — I can’t believe you’re letting me do this! — and for the security of knowing we were still there. I could see the wheels turning inside her cute little head. I considered what she might do next.

In retrospect, I realize there were only four possible outcomes. Interestingly, the possibilities for her were essentially the same as those facing us at any given point. Simple decisions made over and over create the foundation of who we become. And the resulting outcomes determine whether or not we establish a life of fulfillment and happiness. Those options and outcomes are:

Turn around and go back

Gabby did take a quick look back behind her. It was obvious that turning back crossed her mind. She nearly quit before she began. We’ve all had moments when we wanted to turn around and go back. To grab a do-over. Or, in some cases, forget it ever happened in the first place. There might be times when cutting our losses is the best thing to do. But if we do it too often, we’ll spend all our time starting over and never get anywhere. If Gabby chose to turn around, her adventure on the bench would have been short-lived.


At one point, Gabby did stop. She parked it right on the bench and spent a few minutes looking around. She had a huge grin on her face while she sat there, no doubt proud of what she’d accomplished so far. That was okay for a little while. The problem with stopping, though, is it becomes easy to get comfortable. Stopping is okay. Stopping and staying put is a different story. If we stay still for too long, we get complacent. If Gabby stayed safely seated, she wouldn’t have enjoyed the thrills of tiptoeing along the bench.

Fall off

Okay, so this isn’t actually a “choice”, but it is a possible outcome. Falling off the bench may not be the outcome we hope for, but no one can accuse us of not trying. There is a lot to learn from taking a shot, regardless of how it turns out. Failure can be a wonderful teacher if we let it. For a stretch of about fifteen seconds, I was certain Gabby was going to topple off the bench. She didn’t, but I had a plan just in case. I wasn’t going to intervene before she fell, though I was prepared to catch her if she did. The difference there is subtle, but distinct. Allowing her to fall would mean I’ve given her the chance to make her own mistakes. Failing to catch her would mean I’d be eating hospital food for dinner instead of the tavern burger I was waiting on.

Keep moving forward

After her brief stop and celebration, Gabby continued her crawl down the bench. The threat of falling was always there, but so was the potential satisfaction of getting to the end. There was no great reward waiting for her this time. But she did learn that she can make it across a bench. And the next time she’s faced with the challenge of crawling across a long wooden bench, she’ll proceed confidently knowing that she’s done it before and can do it again.

What this means for us

As parents, we have the challenging responsibility of making difficult choices while walking our own benches. And we also have been charged with guiding our children as they do the same. No matter the bench — heck, it can be a tree limb, a balance beam, or a curb on the side of the road — the options are always the same: turn around, stay put, fall off, or continue on. Every choice shapes our future. Sometimes the outcomes are within our control. Sometimes not.

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