Do Things That Scare The Shit Out Of You

A few weeks ago, when I wrote about going dancing, I was completely bowled over by the response. It turns out that lots and lots of us had the need to put on our uncomfortable shoes and get out of the house. It seemed we just needed a reminder, a motivation, a kick in the pants. That same week, I was down in L.A. and had a long talk with Becca of A Los Angeles Love about the response to the post. Why had that post hit a nerve? What was going on? Her theory was simple and really resonated with me. She pointed out that, as adults, we have the ability to stay in our comfort zone. We don’t even have to push ourselves to do little brave things, like going dancing. We can easily surrender to inertia, not leave the house, not leave the couch, not leave our job, not change our lives. We’re not forced to try new things, and when we stop being brave, we forget how to do it. When we stop being brave we forget that the fear of trying something new is almost always worse than actually doing something new. When we stop practicing pushing through the fear, we forget that the fear is a lie, not the truth.

So, last week, APW Editor Kate and I went on a long-planned trapeze outing. It was to celebrate the end of writing the book. We’d picked trapeze because I’d made a promise to myself to knock trapeze off my life list this year. In fact, let me back up fifteen years or so. When I was in high school, the L.A. Times Magazine ran an article about a Bay Area girl who’d fallen in love with the trapeze and had run off to join the circus (literally, she was touring Eastern Europe). I cut the article out and carried it with me for the next ten years. It wasn’t exactly the trapeze part that caught in my heart, but the idea that she’d abandoned a conventional life to do something that made her feel like she could fly. And that she’d found her family there. This is something I’ve worked hard to do, in various ways, my whole life.

I’d wanted to try the trapeze for a long, long, time. It just so happens that I’m also rather afraid of heights. And to do the flying trapeze, you have to climb up to a platform (without a harness) that is the equivalent height of a third floor fire escape. Then you get harnessed up, lean into open space, and grab the bar. And then you have to jump off.

Mostly what I can tell you about is my overwhelming terror. About the difficulty of climbing a teeny tiny ladder with no harness when your legs are shaking. About chalking my hands and my feet because I was sweating all over, and I didn’t want to slip. About the instructor telling me to lean out over the warehouse of cavernous space and grab the bar of the trapeze with both hands. About saying, “I can’t,” and her really calmly replying, “You’re going to,” and me saying, “Ok.” About how I just pushed through all the fear and jumped off the platform into mid-air.

I’d like to tell you that I found it to be shockingly free, swinging from that trapeze, but I found it to be abjectly terrifying. And then I had to let go and fall into the net. And then I had to flip from the net onto the floor. And then I felt like throwing up, but I didn’t. And Kate told me, well you did that, you don’t have to do it again. And I shook my head grimly, chalked up, climbed the ladder again, and jumped. Over, and over, and over.

The instructor asked me if I was starting to have fun, and I told her no, I was just trying to get over my abject terror. And I did. By the end of the night I had ramped down to just garden variety terror. After my last trip to the net, I announced, “That wasn’t the most terrible thing I’ve ever done.” And everyone cheered.

And yet, I want to go back. Because unlike Kate, above, who isn’t mortally scared of heights, I didn’t swing upside down. And I didn’t do a catch. And I’d like to.

But mostly, I feel like I need to go back to master the fear, to finish accomplishing something I really want to do. Because the truth is, I’ve always been afraid of things. A short list of things I used to be mortally terrified of as a child, that I’m now reasonably accomplished at, include:

  • Being in the same room with a kitty-cat
  • Sleeping with the light off
  • Jumping off the diving board
  • Being underwater
  • Rollerskating
  • Riding a bike without training wheels
  • Being admonished in Ballet class

Because when you’re a kid, you have to get over your fears. People make you. And as an adult it’s easy to stay complacent. To stay where we know we are safe. But the only reason I was able to jump off that platform is that years ago I did a high ropes course. I was a counselor at an arts camp, and I was required to do it. I hated it. I refused to participate at first. And when I finally got up on the ropes, and pushed through the fear, it was amazing. I didn’t want to get down. I realized that the doing of the thing isn’t the hard part; it’s the pushing through the fear that is the hardest.

So when the instructor calmly told me that I had to lean out over the cavernous space and grab the bar, I knew she was right. I had to do it, to push past the roaring in my head and the shaking in my legs. I had to grab the bar, and I had to jump. Because that’s what being alive is.

So go do something brave. Jump. The best I can tell you is that swinging in space is less terrifying than standing on the platform waiting.

(All pictures taken at Trapeze Arts in Oakland, which I can’t recommend enough. They don’t let you wallow in fear there. Also? This would be the best bachelorette party of all time. Maybe even better than mine. You’re welcome.)

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