Once, when I was a kid, I climbed onto our roof. We lived in a small house so it wasn’t that big a deal, but I like to remember it. I was not a brave kid, and it took a lot of practice to swing my leg up onto the thick branch of the magnolia tree, then hoist myself higher until I was level with the nearly-flat roof. I can remember sitting there, looking down from what seemed a great height, smelling the scent of white blossoms and feeling the gritty shingles.
I don’t remember when I became afraid of heights…I was probably scared of climbing that tree, but I did it nearly every day in nice weather. So the fear didn’t stop me, anyway.
When I was in fifth grade, I went to a pool party at a college gym. There was a diving board that didn’t seem that high, but once you got up there, the clammy plastic under my feet and the sea of chlorinated water were pretty intimidating. I knew it would be fun to fall, but it was just that moment before hitting the water that I knew would be scary. I don’t remember the jump—isn’t that strange? I just remember the hesitation.
It’s not the height, it’s the fall. The dropping of the stomach, the tingling in the bottom of the feet, the way the heart pounds…are there people in the world who aren’t scared of heights, of falling? Are they really brave?
Someone once asked me if I would ever skydive. No, I answered without hesitation. Why on earth would I skydive?
The other day, I was really sad, and my sister suggested we go to the rock climbing gym an hour away. Sure, I said—I’d been rock climbing before and it was fun. There was a rock wall at my college where people would belay for you for free on certain days every month, and I spent some time there. Not much, I was busy, but I always felt a sense of accomplishment when I left.
My sister and her husband are intense people, and she knew all about this place. She got me into a harness, rented me some tight little Velcro shoes, and showed me all the different routes up the wall. Then she hooked herself to a belay, and started climbing like a goat in a Spacex shirt.
If you’ve never been to a rock climbing gym, it’s a very high-ceilinged room with tilted walls. These walls have little plastic shapes nailed to them for hand- and foot-holds, set at irregular intervals. And people in shorts hoist themselves up these fake mountainsides while cool music plays over the intercom and I drink Gatorade.
“So you want a turn?”, she asked cheerfully.
“Sure, why not?” She hooked the belay to my harness and I began hunting for a good foothold.
The problem with rock climbing is not that it’s a full-body workout or that people do it without ropes and harnesses (called ‘bouldering’), making me feel like a wimp. No, the problem is that when you’ve gotten to the top of the wall (like my sister), or just become really worn-out (like me, about a third of the way up), you have to come down. And that’s when the true test of courage shows up.
“Just sit back in the harness,” she encouraged me. “It’ll catch you.”
But somehow I couldn’t do it.
It wasn’t that I looked down…I made sure I didn’t.
It wasn’t that I was scared of falling…I’d done this before.
No, it was just the instinct. A human shouldn’t jump off of high places, my heart told me. My feet started tingling, my heart started pounding, and I didn’t let go of the wall.
(This, by the way, is why I love cop shows and podcasts. I’m not brave. When Judy Hopps is jumping over stuff and swinging from vines in Zootopia, I’m imagining how long I’d last in the Police Academy. I mean, it’s the Zootopia police academy so it’s different, but…I don’t know. We’ve long established as a theme of this website that I am a coward, so…back to the story.)
Obviously I let go eventually. And the rope held me just fine, like I knew it would. And I’m still here, and I had a good time. But it turns out I’m still bad at trusting the rope.
Maybe when I was a kid I was braver. Maybe I hadn’t fallen off enough stuff; I hadn’t learned that respect for heights that I have now.
Maybe I didn’t know what it meant to be so tired you didn’t care if you fell or not. Because that feeling hit me, somewhere in the middle of a climb, my sister calling up encouragement from two stories down. I could search and search for another thing to grip onto, I could go higher, or I could just let go.
I’m not going to belabor the metaphor here. I’m afraid that disaster will strike, and sometimes awful stuff happens. When you’re tired of trying, you’re tired of climbing and being brave, you let go and trust that Someone will catch you.
You believe in God when you’re a kid, but when you’re an adult, common sense gets in the way. And the blind belief becomes faith. No, it doesn’t make sense to believe in a Being you cannot see to have your back, and yet we continue to do it. Maybe because our own strength is never enough. Maybe because, in our less-scared moments, we have lots of (good) reasons for doing so (my husband can fill you in…he’s about to have a Masters of Theology). But when you let go and fall, that’s the test.
Once, when I was in college, they made us go out in the woods and take this class where we climbed ropes and did trust-falls and went camping (it was awful but I learned a lot. It was this or twelve days in the mountains.) There was this one day where they gave us harnesses and helmets and invited us to volunteer to walk on the “catwalk”—a log stretched between two trees, near the very top of the world.
I don’t remember saying yes, but somehow I found myself being helmeted and helped. Then I started climbing. I think little-kid me jumped at the chance and spoke up, leaving young-adult me to deal with the consequences.
The plan was to get to the top and then come down, not to walk the catwalk, but I did. And I was more terrified than I’d ever been. My legs were jelly and my hands shook like I’ve never felt since. I think someone suggested I sing a song. So I did. A Rich Mullins song.
I made it across the catwalk, and then I let go and they let me gently down. That was one of the bravest things I’ve ever done.
When you’re not sure if you’re being brave, keep moving, and if you’re still scared, just start singing. A Rich Mullins song is good, but so is an old hymn or Jesus Loves Me. I think this is something God is used to, people being scared of things like heights, that represent danger and uncertainty. And that’s why the Bible assures us that God can make us like deer, skipping around on high places. Or like my sister in the climbing gym in her Spacex shirt, or like little-kid me, wanting nothing more than to be up high where the magnolia blossoms were. You can’t go back to life before fear, you just have to practice trusting the rope.