Challenge by Choice


“Get me down from here,” she bellowed, holding onto the rope attached to the harness wrapped around her waist and thighs.

“Are you sure? Do you want to go higher?” I politely asked with a smile.

“Let me down now,” she insisted. The look she shot me could have killed. It was the classic teacher look that silently connoted that she was serious.

“But you are doing so well, sweetie” I charmingly countered. “Remember you have to challenge yourself,” I continue in the most encouraging tone I could have mustered after her look.

“You better let me down now.” Her voice inflected with her native Midwestern attitude, specifically Chicago’s Southside.

I quickly loosened the belay, which allowed her to begin her descent. When her feet touched the mat, I rushed over to help untie her from the safety equipment. As soon as I was within reach, she smacked me on my arm. Not an innocent love tap traditionally found among young kids to mask their affection for each other. Nope. This hit was one of those keep-playing-with-me-and-it won’t-end-well-for-you thumps.

If I did not know earlier, I definitely knew then that she was serious.

I decided to do something different and exciting for Valentine’s day. Since it was our first one together, I knew that I was expected to do the seemingly obligatory, traditional dinner at a fancy restaurant. But I wanted to make this day special; I wanted to make it memorable. Earlier that week, I told her that we were going out before dinner for a few hours and that she needed to dress comfortably because we would do some physical activities. I, to this day, wonder what she originally thought we were going to do.

When I picked her up at her apartment, I broke the news to her that we were going to go rock climbing. She tried her best to hide her WTF-do-you-mean face, but she failed miserably. She always wore her emotions on her sleeve and this moment was not an exception. She politely smiled and feigned excitement, but I knew that she was easily surprised by my choice of activities. I do believe that she was intrigued by the idea because it was not the typical “Black” date, but she was definitely not excited. Needless to say, we were the only black couple in the local rock climbing gym.

In experiential learning, a popular phrase used is “Challenge by choice,” which places the responsibility of the experience squarely into the hands of the participant. The counselors or leaders do not pressure the participant or make any of the activities mandatory, which implies “force.” Instead, the onus is placed on the individual and they can participate as much or as little as they want. My then-girlfriend reached her limit while she dangled roughly nine feet off the ground, supported only by a harness and a pulley system manned by her inexperienced then-boyfriend.

This memory always brings a smile to my face because I learned so much about her, us, and me that day. And somehow that is how relationships are: they are littered with these various “Challenge by choice” teachable moments. Too often, both men and women try to get their partners to do things that their partners may not be ready for: It could range from trying a new activity like rock climbing to being in an exclusive relationship to having sex. The terms boyfriend or girlfriend or significant other or whatever semantics one uses to describe one’s relationship, all are loaded, pressurized terms that force relationships and those involved in them to act or perform in a pre-planned way…society’s way.

Resist that societal pressure or pressure from your fill in the blank with your word of choice. If you are not ready to do something, try something, or be with someone, share your opinion. You always have a choice, and no is always an option.

Voice your “challenge by choice” moment.


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