“Fear is nothing more than our power, unowned; problems are just love, unfelt.” – Bill Bauman
When I was a kid, we used to drive out to Loyalhanna Lake on a hot summer afternoon, a gang of awkward teenage boys wrestling with hormones and budding male bravado. The destination was a secret clearing along the manmade lake, where a giant maple anchored the cliff 30 feet above the water; the perfect branch for a swing leaned gracefully out over the water like a fisherman making the perfect cast.
We were here to show everyone how tough we were, how manly, how we weren’t afraid of jumping off a cliff; a suburban rite of passage, since vision quests are extinct but the need to graduate to manhood isn’t. And there was the required manly talk, voices raised, chests thumped; the talk of those who didn’t jump out far enough from the cliff or held on too long to the rope swing and ended up a mess on the rocks far below. Of course this was just to ratchet up the fear factor, which it did very effectively.
And the truth is, I was scared shitless – it was 30 feet up! And what if I did hit the rocks, or hit the water face first, or got caught on something underwater and didn’t make it back to the surface? But these fears couldn’t be voiced, not in front of friends. There was no way I would have jumped on my own, but peer pressure to a teenager is a force beyond fear, and the fear of seeming small in front of my friends sent me sailing into the abyss, hurtling towards the water.
There are four portions of a jump – the freefall, hitting the water, being underwater, and finally emerging from under the water, hopefully still intact. The free fall portion is initially thrilling, pure adrenaline, usually accompanied by a Tarzan scream, the voice crack betraying the false bravado. But then you see the water rushing up at you fast, and the fears well up just as quick, and the terror of thinking about hitting the water is worse than actually hitting it. If done properly, feet first, the impact is not bad, but is quickly replaced by the complete overwhelmingness of being surrounded by the cold water. The fear of drowning and not being able to get back to the surface plunges you instantly into fight or flight instinct, and there is a mad scramble for the surface. And finally, there is the relief of taking that first gulp of air, replaced quickly by the exhilaration of having conquered a fear; whoops of accomplishment and relief. And all of these emotions in just a few seconds…
My life feels like a series of cliff jumps now. Too many cliff jumps, and some of these from dizzying heights. Sometimes it seems like they are just coming at me too fast, sometimes as soon as I climb out of the water from the previous jump, and most times it feels that I’m not jumping, but am being forcibly pushed. And you still can’t let on that you’re scared, except to the closest confidants.
And the emotions, just piled into each other like a high speed train wreck, just too fast to stop, too fast to enjoy or even process. Joy and exhilaration are just too brief, often sideswiped out of the blue by fear and terror, mostly about things that haven’t even happened yet. Most of the cars in this pile up are simply overwhelmingness, the feeling of being underwater, the place where the pressure is the worst and doesn’t seem to end, where things are truly the darkest and where rest and relief are pummeled into oblivion. And there are moments of real happiness and aliveness, and they are to be cherished, and they are cherished now more than ever – but they are almost always instantly plowed into by the next train car, whatever it is…
But somehow after every jump I’ve made it back to the surface, maybe even with a little relief and comfort and joy, however brief. I know from previous jumps that I will most likely survive, but each jump still has to go through the train wreck of emotions – there is no way around it, only through it – and it is tiring, it is draining. I just wish the jumps would stop for a while; let’s spend some time lounging on the beach, or relaxing in a boat floating on the calm tensile surface, enjoying the warmth without the thrills. Let’s just slow this down, can we?
But dragged out of the water and back to the top of the next cliff seems to be the norm now. The worst are the cliffs that you’ve already done, but for some reason you have to revisit, like the lack of sleep that has returned for me. Just seems unfair, I’ve already done this, what didn’t I learn the first time? Or the cliffs of others screaming out for your help, but you are too caught up in your own freefalls to lend any support. And the bitter cliff of disappointment and joy missed will wallop you like a double body blow, sending you tumbling in freefall towards the water from heights not seen in a long while, made that much worse because you thought you were due for some time basking in the sun.
I sometimes just want to return to the mundane that I didn’t appreciate when I had it; maybe now I will appreciate it, and maybe that’s part of the lesson. And certainly the pace of the jumps will slow down, right? Getting through the holidays, I hope, may provide some respite, hopefully not replaced with other challenges.
Or perhaps this cliff jumping must simply be mastered, too. Look at the graceful high divers breaking the water tension with nary a ripple from 30 meters; surely they were just as terrified as I was on their first jump. Perhaps with the right support, mentors, love and faith, these jumps will become manageable, maybe even enjoyable. And maybe soon I’ll learn to break the surface gracefully, too, instead of kicking and flailing and screaming like I so often do now…