Saturday, August 13, 2011

On Belay

The last time I was strapped into a harness, I cried.  I had spent three years teaching in Washington, D.C., and had returned to my hometown from a year in Kenya.  I scored a new job at my own middle school and the staff development "bonding" activity was at a ropes course.  Adventurous Me was up for anything.  Afraid of Falling Me was excited to conquer her fears.  Meeting New Colleagues Me wanted the impression I made on others to be Fun Team Player.

But wasn't long before I would be lowered face down into the wood chips below, trembling and simultaneously sobbing and laughing after freaking out on the Team Tightrope Walk.  I was never so happy to be lying on the ground, where I remained limp for a good five minutes, kissing the dirt and recovering from one of the greatest frights of my life.  

A manufactured fright, with no real danger, mind you.  No amount of that awareness, Mind Over Matter, or desire to not make a fool of myself was making it better, however.  Turns out I am pretty good at freaking myself out, and an expert at it when there's a potential to fall down.  

I am famously reluctant to stand on chairs or ladders, walk down stairs without clutching a railing, or climb over fences.  The latter presented real challenges in college, when our freshman quad was locked up at midnight, leaving early-morning revelers to scale the scarily spiky Gothic wrought-iron gates.  I required a team of supporters, boosters, and spotters to make it safely over, and perhaps the assistance of the residual effects of the reasons I hadn't made it back to campus on time in the first place.

Then there was the time more recently when I went running a little too close to a rocky border on a paved path.  I fell down and skinned my knees and hands.  About a month later I ran the same route, and approaching the spot of my recent fall, I thought to myself, Hey, that's where I fell down!  And then I tripped and fell down.  Again.

I sort of come by my fear of falling honestly, though I know that it is often my anxiety which precipitates  shaky legs and bad balance.  And I try mightily not to project my fears on my daughters.  Last weekend while camping, though, I had a minor Freak Out when the girls were climbing rocks too close to a scary ledge.

You can imagine my surprise that I scaled a rock-climbing wall on Friday night.  It wasn't technically difficult, but it was tall.  I didn't freeze and I didn't lose it.  I think it had a lot to do being strapped into that harness and feeling the reassuring tugs of my belayer.  If I let go, I wouldn't really fall. I trusted that and him implicitly.

I trust myself in the real world less.

So while I am excited to go rock climbing again, I retain my fear of falling.  The real world doesn't reassure us with an encouraging "Climb on!" and there are no padded floors and tight knots and safety harnesses.  When we take risks, we often fall down, and it hurts.  And some risks aren't worth it.

At the climbing gym, we watched a woman practice deliberately not clipping in her harness at the top of the wall, and letting herself fall.  She screamed the first few times.

I suppose this is what we do with our kids--gradually loosen our reins and challenge them to take the safer risks, while talking them away from the scary ledges.  Avoid freaking them out with our own phobias.

And hope they'll keep letting us know when they're "climbing!"

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