In Harm's Way

My husband and I are planning excursions for our upcoming vacation to a tropical island, and while all the activities sound really fun, they also sound really frightening.

We’re talking about going snorkeling, kayaking, and deep-sea fishing, only I’m scared of the ocean, of what in the ocean might eat me, of getting seasick, of drowning. We’re planning on taking a van trip up to a mountain summit, but I’m scared of getting car sick, of getting altitude sickness, of throwing up in a van full of strangers. Don’t even get me started on ziplining--I’m scared of heights, of whizzing along a tiny cable attached to another tiny cable hundreds of feet up in the air.

One of my coworkers recently sympathized with my fears; she felt similarly when she went paragliding. With paragliding, you have to run to catch air, and if all goes well, the chute/wing gets lift and you go soaring over a beautiful canyon. If all goes poorly, you jump off a cliff and you fall to your death.

Of course, it’s not as hit-or-miss as that. She had an instructor to tell her when to run, to stop her from jumping if the air wasn’t right. But a leap of faith was still required. She had to trust that the wind would catch her. Not even the most experienced instructor can be certain of the wind. It has a mind of its own, or rather, it has no mind at all.

She said the hardest part about the experience was tricking herself into jumping off the cliff. Everything in her body wanted her NOT to jump off that cliff, because it’s against human nature to fling yourself towards certain death.

Once in high school, my biology class experimented with discovering our own blood types. This required stabbing our thumbs with tiny spears that came in sterile paper wrappers. As a person who hates both needles and blood, this seemed impossible to me, but there was no way out of it (believe me, I tried) outside of accepting a failing grade (which I was not prepared to do, being an honor roll kid).

(I would imagine they can’t do this experiment in schools anymore for a number of reasons.)

So there I sat, my right hand menacingly holding the tiny spear over my left thumb. But I couldn’t get my right hand to move. It was frozen. I couldn’t convince my body to hurt itself.

Eventually I took a deep breath, closed my eyes (probably a bad decision on my part) and heaved the spear toward my thumb. A little red ball of blood dotted my skin. And I felt happy, relieved, accomplished that I did it, even though I was afraid.

It’s an odd sensation, being proud of making myself bleed, of hurting myself. But it meant that I could finish the assignment, that I wasn’t going to fail, and that I was going to learn not only what my blood type was but how to “type” blood in general. I could now move forward instead of sitting still.

I’m not getting a grade, though, for going snorkeling or driving up a mountain. And even with the most trained professionals, there’s still a possibility for danger in these activities. So why do people voluntarily take these risks with their lives?

And I guess the answer is to explore. To learn more about ourselves and our world. Because if we don’t take risks, then we sit still; we can’t move forward. If we let fear control us, we won’t experience anything. We have to risk our lives in order to live.

I know I’ll be scared when I clip that harness onto the tiny cable or when it’s time to get into the water. My body will probably try to tell me that I’m making a mistake, that I really don’t want to put myself in harm’s way. But I will ignore it. I’ll take a deep breath, close my eyes, and jump.