Under Pressure

On days off, my wife and I like to leave the office and the city behind and venture into the mountains, seeking nature, relative solitude, fresh air and a good workout. A typical trip will cover a distance of at least eight miles and a few thousand feet of elevation change. Especially during the winter months, conditions can be tough. In snow, ice and pouring rain, the miles seem longer and the packs ever heavier.

Now, imagine bringing a small child and carrying her on your back with you.

Our little daughter is at an age (just under 18 months), where she understands to use primarily one method to communicate discomfort: Crying – or worse yet, screaming.

There is something about a young child’s crying that will grate on you and spur you on to take action. Perhaps it is the tone of it, but it seems even worse, if you are hearing your own child’s crying. Of course, if said child is riding along in your carrier backpack, then the crying will be just inches from your ears: It hurts. You might be tired and hungry, miles away from your car. You have brought only the gear necessary for the trip, no additional items of comfort. She may be unhappy, because she is actually tired and trying to nap. In this case, you could just keep going and she may well calm down within a few minutes and simply go to sleep.

Then again, it might be different and if you don’t address her problem quickly enough, she will continue crying and before too long escalate in tone and urgency. It is possible that she is in real distress and any further delay is just worsening things for her – and you. In fact, given enough agitation, she may begin screaming at you and continue – even as you’re taking the right steps to address her problem – until the situation is entirely resolved. Her urgency, perhaps amplified by harsh weather and (your own) tiredness instills a sense of crisis.

This can get very stressful. You may notice the signs: You rush through movements. Conversations quicken, responses shorten, turn impatient. Communication (among the adults) deteriorates, arguments ensue.

So, what do you do?

Certain experiences can be useful to anchor our intended actions to certain conditions: If I am in this position, then I will generally respond that way. In this case, it is important to keep your cool and understand that there is a problem to be solved. The crying (or screaming even, as it may be) is a symptom, but it can also be very distracting and very well make the situation seem a lot worse than it is. How well do you do at performing a task, if someone is screaming at you during it? In this scenario, we can find out and learn from it to improve during future outings. That is part of our experience of these trips.

It never plays out the same way, but there are some general patterns that can be observed. The problem to be solved here is usually one out of a relatively small list of possibilities. She might be hungry, thirsty, too warm or too cold, bored, uncomfortable, and so on. She might need a diaper change. Resolving the situation is usually straightforward. To get it right though, it is very important to stay cool and get the setup right.

Unless there is a very obvious cause of the distress, we make a decision after a few minutes. We start looking for a good stopping point, factoring in the  weather and environment. If we make a stop and stay for a bit, then this should obviously happen in a way that is safe and protected from the elements. This might involve building an ad hoc rain shelter, flattening down snow and providing some ground insulation, and so forth. Once we are ready, we remove her from the pack. Unless we already know what is wrong, we now go down the list of possibilities and address what is necessary. She will let us know, when we got it right. Again, this is all about remaining calm and being deliberate about our course of action.

You learn so much, when the pressure is on.

As we returned to our car after a long day out on the trails a few weeks ago, boots covered in mud and rain gear glistening from the constant downpour that had accompanied us, I could not help contemplating just how much these outings have taught me about working under pressure.

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