The Courage To Leap

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“Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” – Toni Morrison

My instructor held out a tattered jumpsuit. “Here,” he said. “Put this on. It’s about 30 degrees colder up there.” The jumpsuit was purple, my favorite color. I took it as a sign from the Universe that everything would be ok … that I would not die that particularly chilly morning. I reluctantly stepped into it, attempting to contain my nervousness enough to keep from falling over. As I did, my instructor casually recited directions about what to do when it was my turn to jump out of the plane.

There was just enough apathy in his tone to make me to ask myself, “How the hell did you get here?”  Then I remembered. I was comfortably situated on my parents’ couch, covered in a snuggie blanket and toggling my attention between Family Feud and my laptop. So, when my good mood crossed paths with an e-coupon for skydiving … why not?

The turbine plane could only hold about 20 people. It was narrow with no traditional seats. Just a long wooden box bench to straddle while the instructor connected my harness to his and pulled me awkwardly close. We reached 15,000 feet in about 10 minutes—more than enough time for the butterflies in my stomach to swarm vigorously, tie knots in my intestines and cause my bowels to move. Oh shit! A million scenes flashed through whatever part of my brain controls vision because I saw repeated images of my despairing parents drafting my epitaph, dividing my belongings, and picking up the phone to call me before realizing I wouldn’t answer.

My instructor tapped me on my shoulder and pointed toward the door. It was my turn to jump. We scooted to the edge of the wooden bench because the plane was too compact to stand in. I screamed as we scooted. The other jumpers probably thought I was crazy. And trust me. I thought they were crazy, too. We all were a bunch of crazies 15,000 feet in the air.

I squatted two inches from the door opening, the demarcation between familiarity and the unknown. My instructor repeated directions he gave me on the ground just after handing me the tattered jumpsuit. “Lean your head back on my shoulder. Put your thumps in the loopholes. Wait for my countdown.”

Three.

Seriously. Why am I here? It was a painful question conjured from the embarrassment, panic and self-pity overwhelming my body. I thought the cause was worthy. I thought jumping out of an airplane would be a demonstration of courage and freedom. An action that would push back my personal limitations. But now it seemed reckless. A little stupid. Wasn’t I already free and courageous? I didn’t need this experience to reveal something I already knew. Did I? My heart pounded with such violence, I was convinced I could see it beating through my purple jumpsuit. But I didn’t dare look down to validate if I was right because looking down would also mean that I’d see the ground from 15,000 feet … and that I could…

Two.

But what if I didn’t die? Because, let’s be honest. The odds were not against me. The facility had the best instructors, equipment and ratings. I did research. What if I did this—yielded to the unknown? What if I confronted fear and negotiated with it? Overcame it? What if I followed through with this and enjoyed it? Landed on my feet on the ground? Learned something about my realm of possibility? Expanded my knowledge by converting the unknown to the known? Gained new access to me?

One.

*****

The first three seconds were as terrifying as I had imagined. I was falling, helplessly, at 120 miles an hour from three miles in the air. My stomach dropped into my pelvis, the same way it does on a rollercoaster. My heartbeat rang in my ears. My cheeks waved viciously like a flag on a pole during a tornado warning.  I wanted to break my fall. Grab on to something. But there was nothing. I couldn’t reach back to grab my instructor and risk causing an equipment malfunction. As badly as I wanted to morph into superwoman, I couldn’t reach forward because I’d be fighting against the wind. And the wind would win.

I had one option.

My instructor reminded me to situate my arms with a 90 degree bend. Elbows out. Fingers by my ears.  He knew it was the most appropriate position to cut through the air during a free fall. So, I heeded his direction and surrendered—to the moment. I reflexively suspended control, expectation and fear. So, all there was left to do was take it in—the freedom, thrill and expansiveness of the unknown. For seven minutes, I was a bird flying through the sky. A child seeing the ocean for the first time. A butterfly emerging from a cocoon.

Wonder replaced tension. Awe replaced fear.

Actually, most of the fear I felt leading up to the jump generated from anticipation of the first three seconds of the experience, not the entire thing. And that realization got me thinking. How many times had I miss out on six minutes and 57 seconds of wonder and awe because I had conceded to the first three seconds of fear?

The thought, among a few others, occupied my mind after I landed.

So often we need to jump. Detach from the familiar and leap into the unknown to give our soul more space to grow. But we’re scared. Scared of leaving the comfort of what we know in pursuit of what we don’t. Afraid of jeopardizing what we already have. Overwhelmingly fearful that the risk won’t match the reward. Intensely opposed to being vulnerable. We don’t jump because we inappropriately judge fear and risk; we lack confidence in our abilities; we focus on obstacles instead of possibilities; we avoid disappointing other people. We need courage—to bridge the complicated space between the known and the unknown, between confidence and fear. Without courage, we cling to cities, job and relationships we’ve outgrown. Without courage, we choose safety over growth. Every. Time. We miss entire experiences because we concede to the dreadful, first few moments. Without courage, we don’t leap.

And when we don’t leap, we don’t grow. If we’re not growing, we’re not living because living—fully—requires the courage to jump and the belief that the parachute will open.

*****

I handed the purple jumpsuit back to my instructor with the same smile plastered across my face that I had in the air. “What did you think,” he energetically asked.

“I think I like leaping.”