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Dr. Gregory Jantz, Ph.D. Headshot

The Leap Heard 'Round the World

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Last time I wrote about Theresa Christian, the woman who, it is believed, was fearful of an impending storm and sought shelter in her chest freezer. Instead of protecting her, Theresa got stuck in the freezer for five days until rescued. What police say she thought would save her could have instead killed her. The latest story that's caught my attention is the mirror opposite. Felix Baumgardner thought that what could kill him actually saved him.

Felix Baumgardner is the Austrian former paratrooper who jumped from a platform more than 128,000 feet (around 24 miles) in the air, falling at Mach 1.24, faster than the speed of sound. After several minutes of free fall, reaching just shy of 834 miles per hour, Baumgardner deployed his parachute around 5,000 feet, floating to earth with a two-footed landing, unscathed. Amazing.

There are several things about this story that absolutely piqued my interest: the sheer audacity of it, the razor's edge between victory and defeat (i.e. death), and sponsorship of the event coming not from a government but an international consumer company, Red Bull. Each of these have intriguing implications. However, the part of this drama that caught my attention wasn't merely what got the jump off the ground; I was intrigued by what almost grounded the jump.

"Fearless Felix," as Baumgardner is known for his extreme physical exploits, wasn't quite so fearless. While training for the jump, he discovered an unrealized fear, not over the height or the difficulty or the risk or any of the things that could kill him. Baumgardner became so terrified, he developed panic attacks and almost quit. What was he terrified of? The one thing that could save him. When you're jumping from that kind of height, there are a myriad of ways you can die. The thing that saves you from these dangers is a pressurized suit. Baumgardner's space suit was specially designed to keep him safe. Wearing it, Fearless Felix discovered he was afraid of being enclosed, that he was claustrophobic. Baumgardner said, "As soon as the visor closes, there's this nightmarish silence and loneliness ... The suit signifies imprisonment."

In Theresa Christian's story, the freezer that could have killed her may have signified safety. In Felix Baumgardner's story, the suit that saved him at first signified imprisonment. In our moments of stress, we make judgments about what can help us and what can harm us; those judgments are sometimes wrong. In Baumgardner's case, Red Bull brought in a sports psychologist, Dr. Michael Gervais, to help. According to a CNN article, Baumgardner became "too focused on the suit, not the goal he hoped to reach wearing it." Instead of focusing on the view from 24 miles up, Baumgardner became focused on something inches from his face and that became all he could see.

Fear does that. Fear demands our attention and compels action, even action that is irrational. When fear takes over, reason can take a back seat. Perhaps due to her fear, Theresa Christian sought refuge in the freezer. In his fear, Baumgardner almost gave up and left behind a dream he'd worked years to achieve. Fear is loud and powerful. In order to continue, Baumgardner needed to turn down fear's volume and increase the volume of reason. Gervais did this through helping Baumgardner speak over his fear with positive self-talk.

Felix Baumgardner's jump is a once in a lifetime event. There are few people who will contemplate it and fewer still will duplicate it. But before Baumgardner made that leap watched by millions of people on YouTube, he made another leap, and that's the leap everyone can make. It is the leap from fear to reason, from negativity toward a focus on the positive. If we can take and apply this first leap of Felix Baumgardner's, there's no telling what wonders all of us can accomplish.

For more by Dr. Gregory Jantz, Ph.D., click here.

For more on fear, click here.

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