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- Building Courage
“The girl has to kill the rabbit.”
Everyone stared at me. It was my second day of Survival Training, a program that’s meant to teach you how to stay alive in case you’re shot down behind enemy lines.
I had resisted peer pressure before. In high school, I refused to style my hair or wear make-up, despite classmates who told me I could be so pretty if I just tried. I stuck to my guns, even when my mother had to beg her colleagues to offer their sons as dates to dances.
This shouldn’t have been any different. I am a huge animal lover. I have nothing against hunting for food, especially in a survival scenario. But this wasn’t a wild rabbit we’d caught. It was supplied. It was trusting and tame.
And I absolutely did not want to swing a stick like a baseball bat to break the creature’s neck.
This time, however, I felt a need to prove myself, to show those boys I was every bit as qualified to be a military officer as they were. I wanted them to know I was brave and tough. I accepted the gauntlet as the natural fate of a woman in the armed services.
They had found my weakness.
Looking back, there were so many other ways I could have handled the situation. I could have challenged the assumption with, “Wow, that’s sexist. How about we draw straws instead?” Or I might have called his bluff with a cocky, “Sounds like somebody’s scared. Why don’t you show us what you’ve got, big guy?”
Anything to break that silence.
Of course I was young, and survival training was scary enough even without the sexism. Perhaps it’s not surprising I didn’t come up with some witty comeback. But I think it was more than that.
I didn’t want to be the disappointment of my gender. I was afraid I would kill the rabbit and still be found out for the bleeding heart that I truly was.
I was trying to prove to myself that I belonged and was worthy of respect.
Deep down, the person who needed convincing was me.
I picked up the biggest stick I could find. Someone else was taught to hold the rabbit upside down by its hind legs while stroking its ears. “It calms them down,” the instructor said.
Every cell in my body wanted to run away in that moment. “I can do this,” I repeated over and over.
The guy holding the rabbit looked me in the eye and nodded. The instructor warned me not to swing too hard, or I would knock the rabbit out of his hand. I forced my eyes to stay open and swung.
There was a thud of impact and the rabbit was still.
We touched the rabbit’s eye with our fingertips to ensure it was really dead. No movement.
I breathed a sigh of relief. They were stringing the rabbit up, and the instructor had moved on, showing someone else where to make the first incision in order to skin it.
It was over. I had passed the test.
At the first knife prick, the rabbit started screeching.
It was the most horrific sound I’d ever heard. It filled the forrest and reverberated against the boulders.
“Quick!” someone shouted, “Hit it again! Hit it again!”
I picked up my stick and started whacking. It was like a bad horror movie. We touched the rabbit’s eyes again. Nothing.
As soon as the knife touched its belly, the shrieking started again.
I was frantic at this point. The rabbit was still stung up, so I hit it again and again and again, as hard as I could, until the instructor shouted for me to stop. This time it was dead. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he told us, shaking his head in disbelief.
We were all pretty shaken. My legs felt like jello. I wanted to bawl my eyes out and scream at them “Are you f@&*ing impressed now?!”
For years, I repressed the memory.
Over and over I heard the rabbit’s scream and it filled me with self-loathing.
Not all situations where we try to prove ourselves will be so dramatic, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing psychological damage in the process.
The need to prove ourselves begins, not with a taunt, but a damaged perception of the self. It’s a hole you can’t fill externally. If you don’t feel you’re worthy, no protestations to the contrary or feats of prowess will convince you otherwise.
Proving yourself is a fool’s errand–one that overachievers are particularly susceptible to. They think “Just one more accomplishment, and my value will be unquestionable.” But the goal posts for success and self-worth keep moving.
Now I use these memories as a kind of self-love boot camp. It isn’t much easier than my military training was.
When I relive the scene that day, I am the ghost in the background, watching over my younger self. “You don’t have to do this!” I tell her. “Forget them. Who cares what they think. I will love you!”
But the younger me can’t hear the wiser me. She is still afraid she is not enough.
She picks up the stick and swings.
“I will love you,” I whisper, “I will love you no matter what.”
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