Tuesday, September 15, 2009

not fearless

“...being brave doesnt mean you're not afraid--it means overcoming your fear. I have learned that I want to live until I die.”

Fittingly enough, the above quote was the last line in an article in a skydiving magazine, but it articulates a sentiment that I can appreciate. There have been many times I've been absolutely frightened beyond what I thought I could handle, but just as many times I've gotten to experience the growth that comes with making a decision about that fear. I remember hiking the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls as a kid and having to deal with some serious fear--it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other. One. Step. At. A. Time. Same thing the first time I did the cables on Half Dome (and second time, because apparently I like that sort of thing). Many moments while climbing--usually when I pause, or at an anchor--I have suddenly felt aware of my fear and had to choose to act despite being afraid.

And it's not some high I'm chasing. I experience no flood of overwhelming emotion when I reach an objective. I am glad when I reach my goals, but I appreciate the process as well. For this reason, I find that I rarely cry at what are supposed to be monumental events, like graduations and weddings. I've had time to consider the implications of failure and success and decide how I would like to respond.

On Sunday, I was frightened. I was inexplicably nervous the entire day I was at the dropzone. I am perhaps most fearful at takeoff, because it is the moment of commitment. Once that plane is in the air, I have a very finite amount of time to mentally prepare for the skydive. I always review the process of the jump, from exit to landing, multiple times until I can see myself doing it completely--much like sending a difficult bouldering problem. When I realize my body is tense, I have to take a deep breath and exhale all the nervous energy.

Skydiving for me has become very much a process of evaluating the possible outcomes of a decision and accepting any of those outcomes. If I'm doing a formation jump, we might not complete the formation. If I'm trying a new skill, I might not be able to do it right away. If my parachute malfunctions, I may have to deploy my reserve. If I don't flare correctly when landing my canopy, I might have a hard landing. And then there's the always the possibility of factors I don't anticipate, like a midair collision or a strange wind or a double malfunction (neither parachute does its job), any of which could seriously injure or kill me or another person. How do you wrap your head around being okay with those outcomes? Any of them?

I'm not fearless. I don't claim to have fear all figured out. But I'm glad it's there. Fear forces me to make decisions and to learn from their consequences. Frankly, I'm afraid of a lot, and on a daily basis. But I can't let that fear incapacitate me. I can't be so afraid to fail that I don't try. And learning to apply that principle to other aspects of my life--relationships, career goals--is a challenge I'd like to accept.


  1. Very well written Katie! I could feel the nervous energy that you described just before a jump, and all of the thoughts that race in your mind as you focus on the task at hand. It reminds me of a time I went cliff diving this summer. I had never done this jump before, the water was rough, and on three consecutive breathes I took in water...lots of it. It was the first time that I ever thought that I was going to die! I started to panic, while mentally telling myself not to panic. All of my muscles began to cramp and I was losing it. Earlier, I was afraid to swim to the cliff, as I thought I may get slammed into the cliff by the strong waves, now I had no other option. I was physically spent when I reached out for an overhanging tree root...I grabbed it...then found that I was in about 2 feet of water. I stood up, gained my composure, and thanked God for my life! I think next time I'll do more planning beforehand. :)

  2. Nicely writen post. I can't think of a better way to describe the part of getting into the airplane, especially when you haven't jumped in a while :)

    Funny thing: I never felt fear while climbing in the past. I would just not think about it at all. It wasn't until I started skydiving that I looked at climbing in a different, more realistic way. I wonder why... ;)

  3. Katie, I like how you think about and react to fear. I have known many people who simply avoid, at almost all costs, anything they are afraid of. But I infer from what you write that you'd agree with me when I say there is no life in that kind of living.

    I still enjoy throwing out a life motto I shameless borrowed from a No Fear shirt in the 90's: " If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much space." It wasn't because I was living on the edge, but because I was afraid I was living too, well, "safely."

    More recently, I've borrowed a line from the TV mini-series "Dune" to remind myself of how to begin making choices when I am afraid. "Fear is the mind killer."

    That said, I, for one, will continue to choose not to live a brain-dead life. Fear is just part of the story.

  4. It's interesting, as my response is very different to those above me. While I am happy for you that you push through your fears and enjoy it, for me it is a very different experience. I react differently. Perhaps I avoid many of the things I fear. When I do approch them, I do want at least some level of control/intellectual understanding of it. Perhaps it comes with the habit of dealing with problems by analyzing them and figuring how they happen and how to avoid it next time.

    I find myself disagreeing a bit with your friends here. Living on the edge can be good. It can also be very bad, on the person and on the people around them. Perhaps I say that because on some level, my family "lived on the edge" and even though it seemed very normal at the time, there are still things we are dealing with. I think you were talking about evaluating the consequenses of the moment - which is good. But I suspect the consequenses of after the moment are important too. (I hope that makes sense.)

    I miss you terribly. I miss having friends terribly. I wish you could visit because there are tons of things you would enjoy doing around here. (It really is an outdoor type person's wonderland.)

  5. Hey Katie!

    Can you contact me as we are building a blog network for outdoor sports and lifestyle and I would love to have you on board as a blogger.