Fear of Falling

I spent ten days up and down Vancouver Island this summer, visiting family and friends. One moment of the holiday will be etched in my mind (and felt in my gut) forever—for both positive and negative reasons.

Nanaimo River is a gorgeous run of jade green water that cuts through wide crevices of massive rocks, flanked by ancient forests. It has sections of rapids and white water, but for huge stretches, it is peaceful and current free. Here and there, in spots often decorated with massive boulders and featuring convenient layers of flat rocks down to the water’s edge, it widens into pools—which make spectacular swimming holes.

Because it’s in a valley, you have to climb down to it, and sometimes the inclines are steep. There are places where multiple rough ladders have been placed end to end to make certain spots accessible. However, even for me, and I’m no gazelle, the trails are doable. I just went very slowly and my family was very patient.

Anyone who knows me knows there is no activity in the world I love better than swimming in lakes or oceans, and Nanaimo River is a particularly glorious place to take a dip—cool, clear, super clean and green, green, green. We had an amazing afternoon for it too: hot and sunny with the kind of deep blue sky that’s so pure and pretty it’s dreamlike.

On the hike down, my brother pointed out a giant fallen tree lying like a bridge across a deep ravine. We could’ve taken it instead of one of the three ladders, and we all thought it looked like fun, so on our way back up after swimming, we decided to take the tree bridge. And this is where the gut-roiling moment occurred.

It really was an enormous tree, easily four feet wide, and absolutely solid. Yes, there was a huge drop to the rock strewn, branch-spiked earth below, but there was no question that it was safe.

When I was three or four steps out, however, my husband said “don’t fall,” from somewhere behind me.

It was a joke, not intended to be mean. Half the group had already skipped across, after all, and a person would pretty much have to try in order to actually manage to fall—but it didn’t matter. I heard “fall” and looked down. Instantly, my breath was sucked from me. My lungs, chest and stomach cramped so hard and so quickly that I couldn’t inhale. My limbs locked, my heart hammered like it would explode, and I broke out in a prickly sweat while my blood ran cold.

Seconds later, which felt like years, I managed to speak—not to move. “I don’t think I can do this. I can’t do this.”

Immediately my family and husband were like, “You can. It’s okay. It’s safe. Just go slow.”

“Don’t talk about falling,” I growled to my husband, who felt bad.

Painstakingly, utterly humiliated, I minced across the tree in the tiniest, most halting steps. Everyone cheered when I made it, like it was some big feat, but I just felt stupid. And embarrassed. And weak. And out of shape. And, and, and … a whole slew of other negative, self-berating things.

The worst part was that I had been so excited, was so looking forward to crossing the log bridge. It looked almost magical, surrounded by old growth trees and moss that glowed golden in the filtered sunlight. And I am someone who has always imagined herself up for any adventure—or at least not fear-stricken and crippled when confronted with one.

It also really bothered me because I worried that it might speak to how I handle other challenges. We never know when some event or issue at work or in our personal life is going to trigger fear… fear of falling, of being damaged beyond repair, or just of looking stupid or weak. I kind of hate that it was that last part—appearing weak—that bothered me the most. Why did that bother me so much? Who did I think I had fooled? I am weak. In so many ways. We all are. But the bridges need to be crossed! Fear, weakness or perceived failure shouldn’t keep us from going for the things we want.

It’s okay to freeze, to need reassurance, to only be able to muster up enough courage to mince—but mince we must. And hopefully we’ll also have those other times, the ones where we run full out, arms wide at our sides, laughing and adventuring forth in brave delight.

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