I recently celebrated a milestone birthday and wanted to mark the occasion by doing something adventurous, something that would push me beyond my comfort zone. I pondered the possibility of skydiving but realized I have no desire to free-fall from a plane. After considering a number of options from parasailing to riding in a hot air balloon, I rallied a group of friends and, together, we participated in a flying trapeze class.
The class began with some on-the-ground training; we learned how to hold the fly bar, position ourselves, and jump. We then practiced hanging upside-down by our knees on a stationary bar. So far, so good. Then it came time to climb a 25-foot ladder and replicate these moves up in the air, a far more daunting challenge.
Because it was my birthday, I was given the dubious honor of going first. Wearing a safety belt that barely left me any room to breathe, I approached the ladder and clutched the sides with chalk-coated hands. As soon as I placed my foot on the first rung, my stomach started churning with fear. I'd never been afraid of heights before, but the thought of climbing all the way to the top left me weak in the knees. As I ascended higher and higher, my body felt as though it were dissolving into jello. I was very tempted to climb down, touch ground, and call it a day but kept willing myself to take that next step, just one more step. Placing my focus on just that next step kept me moving upward.
Fear had pretty much consumed my entire body as I reached the top and swiveled onto a narrow platform flanked by two assistants, who made sure I didn't fall off as they handed me the trapeze bar and hooked the rappel ropes to my harness. I stood on that platform, with my toes sticking out over the edge, gripping onto the bar for dear life, trying with all my might not to look down. From 25 feet below, I heard the teacher say "Hep!" (which is trapeze for "jump"). I took as deep a breath as my safety belt would allow and went for it. The force of the drop caused me to start screaming like a banshee, but once I eased into the swing of things, I relaxed a bit and actually started to enjoy the feeling of flying through the air.
After about 15 seconds, I heard the teacher say, "Drop!" I was pretty high above the net and couldn't possibly imagine dropping from that elevation, so I yelled, "I can't drop!" The teacher waited for me to take another swing and yelled drop again. Not wanting to embarrass myself in front of my friends and realizing I'd have to drop at some point, I let go of the bar and, with arms and legs flailing, fell into the net.
After the class completed two rounds of swinging, the teacher had us add a knee-hang to the mix, which meant we'd hook our legs over the fly bar while swinging and then let go. I simply couldn't see myself dangling upside-down while still in motion. No way. When it was my turn, I felt as though I were fighting an internal battle, muscling through some pretty major resistance as I made my way up the ladder again, repeating the process. When the instructor yelled "legs up!" I tried hoisting my legs onto the bar, but they wouldn't go, like I couldn't generate enough momentum to get them up there. And so I had to drop. On the next round, one of my feet touched the bar, which I guess is progress. On the third try, I knew I had to step up my game. This time, I mustered all my inner reserves, vigorously lifted both legs onto the bar, and let go. Woah! From this vantage point, my entire perspective shifted as the world whooshed by in a flash. A few seconds later, I grabbed back onto the bar, unhooked my legs, and dropped. This knee-hang seemed entirely outside the realm of possibility, and yet I did it anyway. I was starting to trust the teacher, the assistants, the equipment, and ultimately myself.
For our final swing, the teacher again stepped it up a notch. In addition to bending our legs over the bar, we'd aim to be caught by an extraordinarily muscular man whose biceps were beyond anything I had seen before. In my head, I was planning to do another knee-hang, and that would have been a win. As I scaled the ladder yet again and stood on top of that platform, I paused for a moment and realized that instead of viewing fear as something to be conquered, I could choose to partner up with it, thank it for trying to protect me and keep me alive, know that its intentions are good, and then do what I need to do anyway, in spite of it, because of it, right alongside it. Courage is not the absence of fear but the knowledge that something else matters more.
And what mattered more was a willingness to experience the next 20 seconds without getting in my own way. The teacher said, "Hep!" and off I went. The teacher said "Legs up!" and up they went. The teacher then screamed for me to let go, and I did so and extended my arms toward the catcher. His hands locked onto my wrists, and, suddenly, there I was swinging in tandem with this wonderfully burly man, and it felt exhilarating. The swing only lasted a few moments, but in that brief span of time, I experienced a sense of being in flow, as though I really were flying. Each step of this precisely timed routine melded into a seamless, effortless whole. I didn't have time to think about all the reasons why the catch wouldn't work or contemplate all the things that could go wrong. Fully immersed in the moment, I tapped into an incredible feeling of freedom, expansiveness, and joy, as my usual fear receded into the background.
This trapeze class turned out to be far more terrifying that I had expected. It challenged me on every single front but also allowed me to realize I'm stronger than I think I am. And it left me feeling more empowered to take risks in other areas of my life. After all, what's life about if not doing stuff that scares us? Every courageous act builds upon itself and helps grow courage. There's something very tempting about staying within the confines of our comfort zone, but it's exactly in that space of discomfort and uncertainty where real growth occurs. I can't wait for my next adventure!