One day, on top of a high cliff, I learned many things about being afraid.
The water was quiet and the cove was green and still. The voices of others crawled across the lake to our side of the island, but, by the time they reached our ears, had lost their shout. We only heard whispers and echoes of their celebrations— the sounds of joy, hushed, but no less infectious. It was a beautiful time to be up so high.
We were still out of breath from our swim against the current and our climb against the rocks. He was much more experienced than I was and knew the way. I felt safe, despite the danger. I followed his arms, still wet with lake water, as he pushed aside overgrown brush and branches for me to pass through. The cliff was near and I hadn’t done this before. I felt brave and the task seemed small, but, when the forest cleared and we reached the edge of the rock, I quickly lost my nerve.
It hadn’t looked so high when I was below it. Perhaps it was the shakiness of the climb or the uncertainty of the depth of the water below, but, all of a sudden, my fears had caught fire. I walked my toes to the edge, where the cliff met the air, and looked down. Everything in me raced and shook, claiming much of the strength I needed to stand. He stood a few feet off, watching me watch the height, but unable to see or know how scared I was. Unable to see or know how badly I wanted to climb back down and slip back into the safe water that I knew so well.
I began to ask him questions about the jump— about clearing the tree branches that weren’t far below, about if he had ever hit the bottom of the lake or if he had ever hurt himself. He answered them with a smile and sat down against the trunk of a tree that had grown through the ground.
“Are you not going first?” I asked him, nervous that he would say no.
“You don’t need me to, but I will if you want me to.”
We traded places and I watched every detail of his departure. It was so quick. By the time I saw the splash, I could no longer remember how he had placed his feet or how far he had to jump or if he had scratched his back against the branches. I had a couple of minutes to muster up my courage, while he made the climb again, but, I wasn’t able to. He came back around to me and took his place against the tree. I still wasn’t ready. I was still too scared.
He continued to jump and climb, over and over, for almost an hour. Each time, he would tell me to watch something different, so that when it was my turn, I would know what to do. And so I watched and I learned and I memorized the act of safely jumping from a high cliff. But the fear would not leave me. I could feel my shoulders burning from the sun on my back and I knew that he was tired from all his effort. I wanted so badly to jump … to show him that I could … to show myself that I could … but, instead, with a deflated spirit, I announced that I just couldn’t.
I expected that he would comfort me and tell me not to be embarrassed and that we would climb down and swim back to the other side. I would tell him that I’ll come back alone and conquer the jump myself, on a day when I have plenty of time to waste. I would thank him for trying so hard to encourage me and make me feel safe and, that, he really did do a great job. I thought that we would go home and that I would feel relief … and disappointment.
But we didn’t climb down the rock. Instead, he leaned back, against the tree trunk, and told me that he would wait all day. He knew that I could do it and he wasn’t going to leave, until I knew it. And so I stood at the edge for another half hour, shaking and sinking and shifting my weight from one foot to the other. I imagined all of the worst things that could happen and, at times, truly believed that they would. I practiced the jump, over and over and over again, in my head, until I eventually got scared that over-thinking it would cause me to hurt myself. And so I just waited. I waited for the bravery to come. I waited for all the fear to drain out of me … for my hands and legs to stop shaking. I waited for my heart to stop racing and I waited for a moment when I felt like I could jump safely.
But, I waited and never felt brave and I waited and I never felt safe. And then I just jumped.
And I was no longer afraid.