Beth Shelton is the CEO of Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa and oversees 50 staff members and 14,000 scouts across the council coverage area. She also leads a troop with more than 50 members, including her daughters.
Shelton was born with only one hand and is intentional about being open and transparent about the hurdles she’s faced and the moments she’s experienced by living with a limb difference and about the person she’s become because of them.
Last summer [my troop] went to Girl Scout Camp Tanglefoot. One of the things at Tanglefoot is a very adventurous high ropes course and zip line. You have to be in seventh grade to do it. There’s a set of obstacles and all of them are ropes of some kind. Some of them are swings and platforms.
Not all troop leaders do the course, but I wanted to be a good role model for the girls and show them that I’m here with you and we’re doing it together. I wasn’t really well-equipped to do it. I had jeans on. I didn’t give it a lot of thought. I did it on a whim. The girls were all afraid and no one wanted to go first. So I thought, I’m their fearless leader, I’ll go first. Well, turns out that was quite the opposite. I didn’t really think it through that there might be physical obstacles up there that would be harder for me than the others, which I think is a good sign that I don’t see a lot of roadblocks in life.
I tend to be on the adventurous side and I did think it looked fun. It wasn’t until I got 40 feet up in the air that it didn’t look fun anymore. I got up there and I was terrified. It’s hard to imagine, but I forgot that I only have one hand. You have two carabiners and you have to be able to hold the pole while unclipping one at a time to move on from one obstacle to another. You’re in a harness, so of course I knew that people don’t die doing this.
But I’m at the top of the pole and all of these girls were watching me like I’m their fearless leader. I looked down at the ground and I was in a cold sweat. I thought to myself, I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I can’t do it. Every single corner where I had to hold on to the carabiners, I said to myself, What are you thinking? You can’t do this. And all these girls start cheering for me, saying, “You’ve got it Ms. Beth.” They definitely knew I was afraid. I went through that course in probably the longest duration of anyone in history. It took forever. I was slow. It was painful. It was exhausting. My legs were quivering. I was sweating through my clothes. I was not fearless. I could not have been more full of fear, but I faced it and did it in a moment that I thought could really showcase courage. I know for the girls on the ground, they were really inspired because they were like, if she can do it, now we can do it.
That moment always comes to mind because it was so vivid. I don’t know if I’ve ever been physically so afraid. I had the fear of falling and the fear of the unknown, but also the fear of letting these girls down because I’m supposed to be inspiring them. If it hadn’t been for them cheering me on, I would have come down. I think it’s natural to have a little bit of fear if you’re zip lining or ax throwing or rock climbing. There’s a natural built-in adrenaline there. There’s no question that I like to embrace those opportunities.
What does it mean to be fearless?
Fearless isn’t a word in my vocabulary that I often exhibit. I’m full of fear on many occasions in life. I like to think of it rather as courage. Courage is in fact having fear and doing something about it anyway. There’s a piece that means overcoming. There’s a hurdle, and I see it, I feel it and I’m going to do something to go over it.
What does it look like? What does it feel like?
It looks like being real. Being authentic. For me, courage or fearlessness has a lot to do with being transparent and real to the world rather than a veneer that I don’t experience or feel those things.
How do you become fearless?
We can decide, does the world happen to me or do I happen to the world? We all get to have a choice in not the circumstances we face, but in what we do with that. As soon as we start to have that awareness, that starts to build courage. We can make an intentional choice to say I’m not going to let circumstances impact me.
In my life, it would be a scribbly, circle-y line that looks like it’s aimless. It wasn’t like going up a mountain where there’s a neat curve. There’s never been a moment where I said, “Yep, I’ve made it and now I’m courageous.” Every time I might consider thinking that I’m there, life reminds me that I’m definitely not there.