by Scarlet Hiltibidal
(That’s me, by the white fence, upside down, back tucking with horrible form – so horrible that one second later my teammates were pulling grass out of my teeth.)
I was a cheerleader in high school. Not the pom-poms and “go team” kind (I didn’t understand football then, and I still don’t today). I did the three hours of practice a day, taped-up wrists, crying and sweating and winning national competitions kind of cheering.
Being on the competition team was serious. It was my everything. And if I play out our first national championship winning routine in my mind from start to finish, and remember seeing Jen Granado stick that last heel stretch after having just landed my roundoff-backhandspring-backhandspring-tuck, I can easily trigger a full-blown weeping session of joy and nostalgia.
My job on the team was to tumble. I did flips. So I was, pretty much, just responsible for my self—hitting my mark, doing my tricks well, and making the appropriate theatrical, corny faces to go with it. If I really stuck the landing, I would turn to the judge’s table with the biggest, fakest open-mouthed smile I could contort my face into while underlining the “DCS” on my chest with both hands.
I hate myself.
I was really bad at what we cheerleaders called “stunting”—the thing where we throw each other into the air and catch and lift. I hated it. I didn’t want to get my teeth knocked out.
So, I was good at flipping by myself and bad at working with the rest of the team.
In the first couple of years, my coaches would challenge me by having me spot the girls who flew in the air. The first time I spotted, the flyer landed on her back and sprained her elbow. The second (and last) time I spotted, our star flyer landed on her coccyx. I didn’t jump backward and away, covering my face while my teammates were falling to their death on purpose. It was instinctive self-preservation!
Again, I know! I was the worst! NOW WILL YOU STOP TALKING ABOUT IT, PLEASE!
Back then, I loved the buzz of being on the team, but I enjoyed the most isolated role. This wasn’t only a cheerleading thing for me. It was also, really until the last few years, how I functioned in relationships.
As a cheerleader, I liked wearing the team uniform, but only if I could do my own thing and not be dependent on anyone or have anyone dependent on me. In life, I always want to be at the party, but you can count on me having to go to the bathroom or slipping out the back door as soon as you go from small talk to deep talk. No thank you.
This tendency led to me hurting a lot of people. I’d be friendly, they’d misconstrue my friendliness for actual openness and love, and I would either fail to meet their expectations as a friend or tell them upfront, “Hey…let’s not even go where you’re going, because I’m going to fail to meet your expectations as a friend.”
Living this way wasn’t good for them and it wasn’t good for my soul, either. I thought I was okay because my life has always been very busy and full. But, I wasn’t growing. I wasn’t allowing God to use me to do anything in anyone’s life, and then I fought the guilt this brought by distracting myself with more busyness.
This has been my pattern until the last couple of years. I joined a small group at church a few years ago, and instead of being at arm’s distance, I actually got involved in these people’s lives and let them into mine. When I was afraid to do something that I knew God wanted me to do, I would tell this group instead of hiding it. I would ask them to pray.
They didn’t bulldoze my walls and force their way into my life. They actually didn’t ask anything of me at all. They just lived like Jesus in front of me, and that compelled me to put my defensive arms down. Their Christlikeness helped me notice my own un-Christlikeness and want what they have.
Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another. – Proverbs 27:17
I’m doing things and living in ways that would have scared me to death years ago, and it’s bringing me joy. My friendships have deepened and become sources of encouragement, rather that stress.
Letting myself be fully on a team with a group of people—tossing and catching and praying and diving under the person who is falling, and letting them catch me when I fall has proven to be such an extreme joy—it’s worth any head bump or bruised coccyx that has come with it.
So much has changed since flipping was part of my life. No longer am I the nervous show-off doing, whatever it takes to keep everyone on my team at a safe distance. Now I’m a nervous show-off who does life with people that make me want to be less like me and more like Jesus.
Scarlet Hiltibidal is the author of Afraid of All the Things. She loves sign language with her daughters, nachos by herself, writing for her friends, and learning how to be a pretend-farmer with her husband in Middle Tennessee. Follow her on Instagram at @scarlethiltibidal.