This post is dedicated to my friend and teacher, David Moriah, father of Cornell University’s Moriah Hall.
A few years ago, I took a life-changing summer class called “Thrills and Skills” at Cornell University, my alma mater. It was one of those experiences where you do a bunch of physically demanding and scary things—mostly outdoors—with a group of other adventurous people. I had never in my life signed up for anything remotely like this. David Moriah, our amazing instructor, has been leading outdoor challenge courses for over 30 years. He’s one of the founding pioneers in the field, and he’s a master. After that fateful week with him, I was forever changed. I was often scared out of my mind, but I did every activity offered. Not everyone in the class was able to do that. When it was all over, David asked what goes on inside me as I conquer my fear.
After considering David’s question, I identified some ways I manage to keep moving and do things that are very frightening to me. I’m going to relate one of the more intensely frightening experiences here in this post. Before I begin the story, I want to give you my breakdown of the steps I seem to move through as I contend with my fear:
- Acknowledge fear
- Take action, any action
- Read your internal reaction to #2
- Change course if needed (if you don’t feel good about #2)
- Acknowledge vulnerability and seek help
- Allow help
- Acknowledge fear (cycle is now repeating)
- Take another action
As you read, you’ll see these steps playing out in my story.
Here’s what happened:
As I climbed the telephone pole up into the tower, the thick rope attached to my harness stretched upwards past my nose, secured far above me. This was my sixth long climb up a pole that day, and my legs ached with the unusual effort. In my head ran a mantra of sorts: Last climb. Keep moving. Foot, hand, foot, hand. I was focused entirely on the climb with no thought of what awaited me at the top. That was how I needed it to be. I didn’t allow myself to consider the reason that I was ascending 50 feet up a pole to sit on a small sqare platform. For now, I just needed to get to the “safety” of that platform without falling off the pole.
I was finishing my day of “high ropes” at Cornell’s Hoffman Challenge Course. I’d already done several terrifying activities at around twenty-five feet in the air, and this climb was taking me to our “fun” day-ending reward. Or so I’d been told.
From the top of the tower, you can either take a zip line ride down, or you can use the King Swing, a forty-foot “swing” that launches from the top of the tower in an enormous arc. I’d done the zip line a few days earlier, enjoying it once I’d gotten over my initial reluctance. Now, I was headed up for the King Swing. Our group had been hearing from our instructor David all week about how much fun the King Swing was, and it was our grand finale for the day. Unfortunately, once I’d seen that you were essentially dropping yourself off the fifty-foot tower at the end of an enormous cable clipped to your harness as the “swing,” I was not so enthusiastic. In fact, I was on the edge of panic as I climbed. I was exhausted. My reserves of energy for contending with my fear were depleted from my long day of fearful activities.
Nonetheless, I joined my three other classmates at the top of the tower, along with our teacher, David, and Matt, the staff person in charge of sending us off safely. I’d become a huge Matt fan the day of the zip line—he was wonderfully calming and reassuring. I felt like I was greeting an old friend when I saw Matt as I arrived on the high platform.
Our most fearless group member went first. I watched as Matt quietly clipped her onto the enormous swing cable and gave her the instructions on how to launch herself off the platform. The more I watched, the less I wanted to do it. I’m too tired for this. I’ve had a long day. I don’t have it in me to push through another wall of fear. Panic was starting to take over. I was having trouble paying attention to what was happening around me. Things began to take on a dreamlike feel, or should I say a nightmarish feel. I watched my classmate jump off the platform into a several-foot free fall before the cable of the swing caught her and swept her into an arc through the trees. She was grinning and waving at us. I waved back, knowing I was probably up next. I wanted to throw up. I can’t do this. How do I get out of it? I DO NOT want to jump off this tower. I can’t. The panic started taking me. Sitting on the 50-foot high platform, I hugged my knees and rocked back and forth in a subtle version of the fetal position. Then suddenly, genius struck: ZIP LINE! I can zip line off instead!! YES!
Pleased with my clever solution, I announced, “I think I want to zip down instead.” My flash of relief was immediately replaced by a sinking feeling of disappointment in myself.
“Ooh, that’s a great idea,” one classmate said, “I think I’ll zip too.”
“Yeah, me too. I’d rather zip,” said the third classmate.
Our teacher David’s brow furrowed briefly. “So you guys all want to zip instead of swing? Wow… okay,” his genuine surprise sliced straight through my haze of panic. Shit. He’s disappointed.
Matt helped the other two classmates clip onto the double zip line and sent them off. As I watched them happily sail off the tower, my gut again told me that was the path of disappointment for me. I’d be giving up, letting the fear win. My turn was next, and I had to decide. I was in a bind between disappointment and paralyzing fear. For a moment I felt sorry for myself, as if the fear was a wall of resistance preventing me from doing what I’d come there to do.
I next realized that I had an opportunity to move into my fear beyond what I thought was possible. I wasn’t a victim; I had a choice: Would I choose relief from the fear or triumph over it?
Sitting there rocking, hugging my knees, I decided that I couldn’t end my fear-defying day with a wuss-out. No matter how bad it felt, I would find a way to master my fear. In that moment, I committed to action. As soon as I made the conscious choice to defy the fear, the zip line was no longer an option. I abandoned that route of escape in my mind and turned my effort to creating a passage for myself through my fear and onto that swing. I expanded my awareness beyond my own head and looked around at instructor David and Matt, the calm safety staff member. They were both looking my way, measuring my condition. I stopped trying to be brave and allowed my fear to show. I met David’s eyes and he said, “You’re thinking about the swing, aren’t you?” I nodded and rolled my eyes at the same time.
“I’m going to push you to do this,” David said quietly, almost conspiratorially.
With David’s words, something shifted in me. David was telling me that he knew I could do it, that he believed in me. My fear retreated just enough for me to begin physically moving towards the edge of the platform where Matt waited, ready to clip me onto the swing’s enormous cable.
I was too frightened to stand, so I scooted over to him. I can’t believe I’m doing this. How am I going to get over that edge? The panicked chatter in my head came roaring back as I neared the edge. I let the chatter flow by, no longer heeding or resisting it. I took my position sitting at the edge of the platform, legs dangling, right next to Matt. I could feel his calming presence, and I looked right into his eyes. Again, I allowed him to see my fear instead of hiding it, and I said quietly, “I’m really freaked.” I don’t remember what Matt said back, but he reassured me with words and actions that he would keep me safe. My relationship with Matt from the zip line experience a few days before was key to his ability at that moment to help me move through my fear. I trusted him.
As I sat there, clipped in to the swing, the heavy cable dragging me closer to the edge, my panic rose up once more, threatening to overwhelm my free will. I was entering that nightmarish state again and dimly realized that I needed more help. I sensed David standing just behind me, and I glanced over my shoulder and reached out to him. He took my hand and squeezed it briefly. His touch grounded me enough that I could turn back to Matt and listen to his instructions. I focused my full attention on Matt’s eyes and voice. I purposefully absorbed his calming energy—it’s difficult to explain; it was like opening a channel and connecting to his safety. Again, I don’t remember his words, only his complete presence with me at that moment. Let me be clear, I was scared out of my mind the entire time. It was never fun. I didn’t reach some magical state of grace. But I did jump off that tower. I’ve never felt more terrified or more satisfied. This experience played out on two levels: The conscious, intentional level and the animal, panic level. I never stopped feeling the panic; I allowed it to be there. I acknowledged it to those around me who I trusted to help me. I took action despite the resistance.
I’m sure I don’t have this all figured out. What I know for certain is that I couldn’t have done this alone. My relationships with David, Matt, and my classmates cheering me on from the ground made all the difference.
You might not ever need to jump from a 50-foot tower when you don’t want to, but the same principles apply to anything in life that frightens you.
Once you decide to commit to the scary thing: Admit your fear, ask for help, and remember that none of us does it alone.
That’s all for now. The best is yet to come.