When the Bravest Thing to Do Is Fail
Instead of being the star of the business trip, I was the coward. And it was one of my bravest moments
When I was editor-in-chief of More Magazine, we used to take the readership on a yearly retreat to a fancy Arizona spa. The magic of this super-high-end spa was that they didn’t just slather you in massage oil, they offered physical and mental challenges that were intended to make you grow emotionally.
Which was great, except for the fact that I am the most horrible coward when it comes to physical challenges.
There was, for example, the “Equine Experience,” which required you to stand next to a horse and will him to lift his leg so you could clean his shoe. Of course, that is unless the horse, which can sense any human weaknesses, won’t comply until you muster a certain kind of mental courage and lean into him the right way. Many frustrated reader tears were shed in that corral with those horses who I, being a terrible city-slicker cynic, believed had been trained to not respond at first, in order to accomplish the deeper work required by the therapist hosting the event.
Even though I like to ride horses, I avoided this event, because deep down I’m afraid of the giant creatures.
But there was a second challenge that I thought I could handle. It was just a pole about 30 feet in the air that you scrambled up. It had a small circular platform on top on which you stood. Simple enough, right? And I was goaded into trying it because I was the titular leader of the trip! Plus, you’re strapped into a harness that your group mates control so you simply can’t fall. So, easy-peasy, right? I watched every brave More reader be coached rung by rung up the slim wooden pole and each one eventually heave themselves onto the sneaker-width circular platform. I also watched them be coached into learning how to steady that deliberately wobbly platform using their minds, not their hands. Many cried. Many closed their eyes and found a certain strength inside themselves that they didn’t know they had. When they returned to earth via harness, it was to applause and hugs.
I wanted that experience, too. (Especially the reader hugs.)
Only one problem: I have a horrific fear of heights.
But I wanted to push myself, partly because I was the editor of the magazine and host of the trip. But I also wanted to see if I could reach beyond the physical limits of what I imagined I could do. And I was safely strapped into a harness! Halfway up, however, I was gripped by a nausea so extreme that I thought I might splatter my entire spa lunch all over the upturned faces below. As I tried to drag each foot upward, they felt stuck in a mouse glue trap. The harder I pulled, the more my body pushed back, crying: “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!” (That’s for you Lost in Space fans!) I looked below me at the readers I was supposed to be encouraging to reach beyond their own expectations, to push into areas unknown. I could see the platform in front of me: all I had to do was lift myself up.
And. Stand. On. That. Disk.
Everyone else had done it.
Yet, all my grade-school gym class failures flashed before me. I always missed catching the ball in lacrosse. I never made the basket in basketball. I got hit in the head during kickball. I was always a total, physical failure. (It wasn’t till years later that I discovered my own type of physical success when I could get out of competitive sports and go to the gym. Alone.)
Tears welled in my eyes as I remembered the 25 years of lying on a therapist’s couch. How I’d struggled into my 50s to finally listen to my inner self and stop being guided by outside thoughts or opinions. How I’d labored to not be shamed by an overbearing father into doing things he deemed were right but were wrong for me.
Suddenly my decision became clear.
I tugged on the rope and asked to be lowered down. As I waded into the surprised faces below, I decided to be radically honest: “After 25 years of therapy, I know this was just not for me. I have a terrible fear of heights and I guess I’ll just accept that it remains!”
And guess what? Nobody looked askance or brought it up again. Each reader was happy for their own accomplishment and did not require that I compete in order for them to feel fulfilled.
This physical exercise of bravery was just not for me. But it took an act of mental bravery to own up to it.