‘Ride the stick horse’: John Hagala masters breaking out of comfort zone

“Ride the stick horse,” John Hagala’s dad’s advice echoed in his mind. “Just ride the stick horse, son.”

John, a freshman at the time, ran down the hill from his new dorm. He could see the light of The Klatch below him and hear the tone of conversation. What better time to use his skills than now? He leaped off the rock edge and fell toward the Klatch. He landed on the ground, bent at the knees, with one hand in a fist on the cement floor and the other in the air. All eyes were on him: the man who fell from the sky.

John savored the moment briefly before he stood up and said “Hey, guys!” with a giggle, like nothing impressive had just happened. He had ridden the stick horse.

This stick-horse concept originated in John’s third-grade class. He had to give a presentation on Paul Revere, who had ridden a horse to warn Americans that the British were coming. Should John ride a stick horse in his class presentation? His dad said yes. His anxiety said no. Since then the stick horse concept has been one of making yourself known – not hiding in other people’s shadows. This, paired with his unique interest in parkour, are tools that help John overcome his fears in life.

“I was too shy,” he said, looking back on that day in third grade. He did not ride the stick horse.

But, as a senior in high school, John was braver. Visiting his only prospective college, John sat in the audience at the school talent show. The room was almost at its full capacity of 700 people – students, faculty and other visitors filled the seats.

“Ride the stick horse,” John thought to himself, as two announcers on stage told visitors to come display their talents. All it took was that singular burst of bravery and before he knew it, John was on the stage in front of a massive crowd. He was given a fake rose to integrate into his talent. Like a true tango dancer, John put the flower between his lips. And like a true acrobatic, he lifted himself onto his hands and walked around the stage. Needless to say, the audience was impressed with his walking handstand.

It became a little easier from that point on. So, when, as a freshman, he touched down on the ground at the Klatch, all eyes on him, he smiled.

John is now a junior majoring in Media Arts and minoring in Creative Writing. He describes himself as an adventurer and someone who “creates art of any kind.” He says that the bodily art-form he displayed that day on stage or that night at the Klatch, is a metaphor for life.

“The psychology of parkour is simple, but our minds make it complex,” he said. “You have to overcome the governor in your mind that tells you not to dive face-first toward the ground.”

John describes fear or anxiety as a ‘governor in his mind’ because sometimes it seems to be in control of everything else about him.

So, what discourages John from riding the stick horse? What is his obstacle? And what is the governor in his head telling him to be scared of? He would say crowds.

“Overcoming social anxiety is a goal of mine. My main goal is to do all that I can for God before I die,” he said.

John knows that God commands us to go out and love each other, throughout the Bible, perhaps the most notably in Great Commission in Matthew 28. God commands us to “go forth” to demonstrate His love, and “make disciples of all nations.”

Does social anxiety stop us from properly loving the world? John thought it might hinder the ability to do it well.

“I don’t think we’ll have social anxieties in heaven,” he said. When asked if his goal is to dispel his anxiety, he shrugged and said, “You’re not going to be perfect ‘till the day you die. My purpose is fulfilled when the Lord takes me home. My own personal goals don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.”

Social situations were not all that common for John growing up. Before living on a college campus, he never felt the need to meet other people. His ties with his family had always been deeply held and utilized. He would find himself “second-hand socializing” when his parents were around.

“Coming to college was a big step for my fight against my anxieties,” he said. “Being independent was another one.”

John’s friends don’t often notice his stress in social situations.

“John isn’t shy of people. He just doesn’t go out of his way to interact with people. He’s more active and explorative,” said a good friend of John’s, Robert Davila. Robert also said he does not ever remember a time when he noticed John’s social anxiety flare up.

“He’s somewhere between extroverted and introverted. He needs people, but at a certain point he gets stressed and taps out,” said Mikayla Meyer, another friend of John’s.

Although John says that his anxiety was never debilitating, he still utilizes mindsets and tricks so he doesn’t get too overwhelmed in social situations. This is where his unique athleticism comes in.

“Parkour is a metaphor for life in that there’s always gonna be obstacles,” he said.

John says the only way to get around the obstacles is with strength, technique and mental agility.

“I have a huge fear of not having a soft ground to practice on, but that’s when friends come in handy,” John said when pointing out the difference between being alone and being independent.

“Some of it is self-inflicted; I’m shy. And it’s good to be strong alone, but it’s not good to be alone.”

John’s fear of diving toward the ground to complete a tuck-and-roll parkour routine is similar in his mind to starting conversation with strangers.

“You could get hurt, but it won’t kill you. You can shake it off,” he said.

John said it is nearly impossible to overcome such anxieties all by yourself.

“You can’t run up a 10,000 foot mountain,” he said. “Sometimes you have to create footholds. You need to get tools.”

John emphasized that, although reliable friends can be great tools whether you are climbing a mountain, learning parkour or overcoming social anxiety, they cannot be your rope.

“God is your rope. He’s your thing that’s going to pull you to the top of the mountain.” And John admits that sometimes the best thing a friend can do is give tough love.

“Sometimes you can’t get around the obstacle till your friend pushes you off the cliff so you have to rely on your rope,” he said. Although John does not condone literally pushing friends off cliffs, he does want to use the strength given by God only.

Scaling walls, jumping over tables and leaving a powerful whoosh of air behind him, John can often be seen doing parkour around campus. His routine may look strange to some people, but there are two things they do not know.

First: he has worship music flowing through his earbuds. He is praising God in a unique way.

Second: he is not just jumping over a rock that stands in his way and overcoming that obstacle. He is also working to overcome social anxiety.

He said, with each person he runs past, drawing uncomfortable attention to himself, he is growing more comfortable being seen and noticed by people – he is improving his ability to go forth.

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