A few years after college while I still lived in Atlanta, my mom declared that during her forthcoming visit, she wanted to go skydiving…with me. She had always fervently avoided heights, so I was shocked by the announcement. When I told her so, she clarified that it was important for her to face one of her greatest fears. As someone who is apprehensive about flying and sees it as nothing more than a painful but necessary means to travel the world, I had never considered the idea of willingly jumping out of an airplane. Nonetheless, whether it was a desire to support my mother’s noble wish or my competitive nature compelling me to match her valor (likely a little of both), I began my research of the most credible skydiving establishments in the area. In my naivete, I did not realize that unlike many other pastimes, one cannot just decide to skydive whenever it’s convenient; the conditions are crucial. Overcast and rainy days meant the stars did not align for us on either the first or the second attempt. During one of mom’s subsequent trips to Atlanta, we finally took the big leap, or push rather. I recall that despite being a nervous wreck for days in advance, an invigorating sensation overcame me after landing safely on the ground: I was alive. Skydiving roused a dormant energy that I never knew I was craving.
Webster’s dictionary defines courage as the ability to do something that frightens one, or strength in the face of pain or grief. Unlike bravery, which is most often a state of mind absent fear, people often define courage as a heart-centered virtue; taking action in spite of fear. It’s knowing something will be hard but doing it anyway. Regardless of which definition I apply to my own life, courage has been at the forefront of my experience recently. The challenges of the last year have tested me and proved that I could not only survive the impossibly difficult parts, but thrive in the face of them. Just last week, I channeled this energy into a new, albeit less serious, endeavor. After months of crossing paths without ever exchanging a word, I approached a man that I knew nothing about and gave him my phone number. Or to put it more accurately, I thrust it upon him and bailed. I’ve done some scary things in my life including but not limited to: moving solo to multiple foreign countries, getting married and then promptly admitting to my then-husband and family that I wanted a divorce, and confronting my unbridled, subconscious fears in an ayahuasca retreat. Not insignificantly, I continue to bear my soul year over year, post after post, in this blog for the world to judge – which happens to be one of the few things that truly stokes my inner flame. Despite my considerable training, I can say without any hesitation that this latest act was terrifying. I felt completely vulnerable and exposed. What would it mean to be rejected? And if that were the case, how would I face the inevitability of running into this man again?
Now that I have you on the edge of your seats, I am sure you’re eager to know the end of the story. Let’s just say that after weeks of deliberation, I was daring enough to approach this guy, but I was not willing to stick around for his response in real-time. I handed him my number on a sticky note, mumbled a few words, and promptly walked away. I couldn’t bear the weight of so many concurrent emotions errupting inside of me – the nervous adrenaline would either transmute into giddy elation or absolute disappointment. After almost a day and a half (not that I was counting), I received a gracious but deflating text response: he’s in a relationship. My first, overly-dramatic instinct was to protect my fragile ego. “Of course, all the good men are taken,” said my inner cynic. And then came the reaction of lost possibility, followed by regret for my boldness. Once I traversed that natural and necessary emotional process over the next few hours, I came full circle and recognized a similar feeling I had upon landing safely after diving out of that plane over a decade ago.
Regardless of whether we are facing our fears or our grief (same monster, slightly different mask in my opinion), the choice comes down to being alive or utterly numb. I can understand how and why people become adrenaline junkies, on an insatiable quest for thrilling and dangerous activities. The self-imposed test of survival reminds us of the unique opportunity these emotional lives in human bodies offer us every single day we draw another breath. Tapping into that power requires vulnerability and sometimes even poses a real, existential threat. The prominent professor, author, and emotions researcher Brené Brown focuses extensively on vulnerability, affirming that it is our most accurate measurement of courage. In her words, “courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” This recent experience offered clear evidence of that idea. I believe that the decision to expose ourselves is what makes courage so beautiful. While there is undoubtedly an instinctual nature to gallantry, our modern comforts and social conditioning to “fit in” provide ample excuse to stay safe and maintain the status quo. Ultimately, it’s an individual choice to take massive action, and often one that unpleasantly goes against the grain. But as the French author Anaïs Nin states so impeccably, “life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” The question is simple: do you want to stay right where you are and spend your precious life wondering “what if?”, or are you willing to risk your ego, your pride, or even the foundation of your security in the name of expansion?
The gamble I took this week highlighted what I assert to be the most critical ingredient of courage and a peace-full life in general: the willingness to walk away and accept reality without forcing the expected or desired outcome. Just like I learned when mom and I tried to skydive on three different occasions, I am not in control of the external weather conditions, nor can I manipulate the Universal plan that at my core, I know is constantly conspiring in my favor. As often as I want to force a particular result, especially when I’ve invested so much emotional energy and I feel practically entitled to get my way, the most daring act of all is setting the intention and then allowing life to unfold. Perhaps mustering the will to do something scary leads to that big break or the fairy tale ending. But, more often than not, it involves adversity and/or disappointment, and that is precisely what ratifies our strength and resolve. When we risk taking the dive inward, we see that we are going to be okay no matter what. The parachute will undoubtedly deploy. With that lens, I appreciate that agreeing to jump out of the plane with my mom was not the real act of courage, but instead it was coming back over again and continuing to try when the original plans didn’t manifest according to our agenda. The Universe always provides the perfect timing and conditions if we let go, dive in, and watch the magic unfold from every altitude.
I’ll never forget the marvel once that parachute opened: time suspended…peace…bliss… transcendence…and a whole lot of love for the strange man strapped to my back.