Fear – it can be debilitating, or it can be the ultimate motivator.
Several years ago – when I was in my early twenties1 – I faced the first of the two irrational fears I had known my entire life; my fear of heights. Before that random day back when I was still an innocent2 twenty-something, I lived in fear of all things that separated me from the safety of terra firma. Ladders, trees, balconies, planes – all were the same in that they all reminded me that I wasn’t safe, and any tiny slip would surely see me falling to a painful and bloody death.
I was rather melodramatic back then.
Things changed one day when I was 20ish. I had joined a friend at her parent’s cottage. It was a beautiful summer day and we’d decided to go out in the canoe. Eventually we paddled our way to a cliff and three twenty-somethings who were thoughtlessly, carelessly, and without any sense of safety or their impending death, hurtling themselves into the water below. With every leap, my stomach sank, my panic increased. With every leap, I expected to see a body float to the surface of the water, lifeless, broken, leaving family and friends with an empty ache where once a vibrant life had been.
Of course that didn’t happen.
What happened was worse. Far worse.
“Let’s join them” my friend said/demanded.
I’m sure all colour drained from my face. For whatever reason I followed my friend to the top of the cliff – at least 30 feet above the water. Thirty feet of danger. Thirty feet that separated me from my untimely and painful, awful death.
I watched as each of the three twenty-somethings we met continued to climb the cliffs and run face first at death – mocking his ability to snap them like twigs. I watched as my friend followed suit, unaware that she was tempting fate.
I stood at the top of the cliff, frozen. My mind raced – calculating distances and speeds necessary to clear the rocks that jutted below the edge of the cliff. I worried about the impact. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to make the jump – that I’d trip, or worse, not leap far enough. I worried I’d sink too quickly, smashing my head or legs or body or all of the above. I worried that I’d gasp for air the second I was underwater, filling my lungs with the murky water that lay below. I worried.
And I worried.
And I worried some more.
I’m sure thirty minutes passed but it could easily have been an eternity. My heart was in my throat. My mouth was dry. My body felt weak. I was light headed. I inched my way to the edge, peering over. I took a step back and breathed. My head was spinning. I took a few more steps back. I turned and approached the edge again, tracing out the steps I would need to take to jump to what would inevitably be my death. I breathed. I turned again, this time walking a few steps farther from the edge. Again I traced my steps. And again. And again. Then I traced my steps by running – stopping before I got to the edge.
Would I be able to jump far enough? Would I have enough speed? Enough momentum? Enough courage?
I stood about 15 feet from the edge of the cliff, mentally planning my moves. And then my body was moving – pushing forward despite what my brain was saying. I heard nothing but the rush of blood in my ears, the sound of my breathing. With each step the edge drew nearer; death drew nearer. I kept running. I kept running.
And then I was leaping.
And then I was flying.
And then I was falling.
It took only seconds. It took a lifetime.
The water engulfed me, swallowed me. In a heartbeat my body instinctively forced itself to the surface. To air. To life.
Because I was alive. And I was screaming. And I was huge. And I was humbled, and on the verge of tears, and I was happy to be alive. Because I was alive.
This Friday – March 1st – I’m taking on my last irrational fear. And I’m going to get over it. Because fear won’t determine what I can’t do. Fear will be my fuel.
For those in the area, join me in the Science Complex Atrium (at the University of Guelph) at 5pm and watch as I conquer my fear of spiders. I’ll be raising money for the Canadian Mental Health Association, and hopefully leaving the building a fearless man. For those who wish to donate but can’t make it to campus, click here.
1 Shut up – several can mean more than 15.