Welcome to 2016! It’s time to brush off the cobwebs of last year, make some new writing resolutions, and feel smug and confident about your future achievements. At least, until the reality of the year sets in and, suddenly, those goals you were so confident of achieving take on an aspect of hitherto unimagined terror. What if you fail?
That’s fear talking. We all know the touch of its icy fingers. Now, fear isn’t good or bad, it just is. Fear is only a problem when you let it control you. Easier said than done? Perhaps. But I stopped letting fear control my life on the day I threw myself off a cliff.
Let me explain.
Many years ago, I went on a business retreat that culminated in a full-day team building exercise. My boss, an athletic 30-something man named Rick, wouldn’t tell us anything about it. The only thing we knew was that we needed to show up at 8am wearing clothes suitable for physical activity. When we arrived, Rick introduced us to two guides who would be accompanying us on some “light canyoning”.
Light canyoning. That sounded all right.
Even to a group of women whose only regular exercise involved running into the liquor store to pick up a bottle of wine.
We started by following a track into the bush for half an hour, joking and singing, and generally having a good time. After a while, the track started heading up on an incline. Then it turned rocky and the path all but disappeared. Nothing too extreme. Just a bit of gentle rock climbing. When someone grazed her knee, Rick told her not to worry. “This is the worst part.”
The downward trip was much harder. Pebbles rolled under our feet and sent us skidding. Some of the drops were six or eight foot high, and we had to help each other clamber down. We arrived at the bottom of the ravine, next to a pool of dark water. Rick pointed across the lake. “See that rock over there? That’s where we’re going. We’ll swim across.” At the looks on our faces, he added, “This is the worst part.”
I’m not going to lie. I did not want to swim through the cold, dark water. But at this point, there was no other choice. One by one, we swam through the icy water. By the time we got to the other side, we were shivering, and many of them women were silently crying.
From our new position, we looked over a series of waterfalls, all the way along a gorgeous winding river, with untouched bushland spread out before us. I barely noticed. I had scrapes over all my exposed skin, and my shoes were full of freezing water.
“Okay,” Rick said, his voice full of excitement. “Now we rappel down the waterfall.”
None of us, barring Rick, had ever rappelled before. None of us were physically or mentally prepared for this. So we sat there on that rock, tears running down our faces, as the guides set up ropes and harnesses. And then, one by one, we prepared to go over the edge.
There was no other choice. Not really. We were strapped into the harness and given a quick rundown on what to do, while Rick stood there watching. “This is the worst part.”
The drop was only three or four yards. And we didn’t so much rappel as sit in the harness while we were lowered down. But we were in the middle of a waterfall. The water was cold, and the rocks were slippery.
At the bottom, we were deposited into another pool of cold water. We waded to another rock and sat there in abject misery, quietly sobbing to ourselves. When Rick joined us, he grinned. “Great work! Now that you’ve had some practice, the real rapelling will be a piece of cake!”
We weren’t finished. That rock we were sitting on was not the end; it was the next staging ground. We were cold and wet and tired and miserable. The only way forward was to rappel down a cliff face that looked at least three hundred yards high. Okay, it’s possible my eyes were exaggerating, but however high it was in yards, it was insurmountable in my mind. The only positive was that we’d be rapelling down a cliff face, rather than a waterfall. But it wasn’t much of a positive.
I sat with the other women, desperately trying to pull myself together. Rick asked for a volunteer to go first. I looked around. I was the youngest person there. I was one of the fittest. And everyone else looked even more terrified than I felt. So I volunteered.
The guide hooked me into the harness and checked all the knots and clips. He tried to give me some last minute instructions, but I couldn’t see or hear him. I was shaking and sobbing and terrified. Rick gave me a quick hug. “This is the worst part.”
It was time. All I needed to do was lean backwards over the edge. I took a deep breath. And another. I tried, and failed, to stop crying. I counted to three. And then to ten. And then…
I couldn’t do it.
I jumped forward, scrabbling at the buckles and clips that tied me to the rope. My fingers were numb. I couldn’t breathe. The guide unbuckled me and helped me to a place to sit down, where I proceeded to hyperventilate. Someone else went over the cliff first. I don’t remember who. I didn’t care. I had failed.
Slowly, my fear turned to fury. Damn it, I was cold and wet and terrified, but I was not going to let a pile of rocks and a fancy rope beat me. Out loud, I said, “I can do this.”
I said it over and over and over again, until I almost believed it. When the guide asked for a second victim – uh, volunteer – I was the first one there. I wasn’t even crying. I was well beyond terror by that point.
The guide attached my harness, and told me I was good to go.
I stepped backwards off the cliff.
I didn’t think about it, I just did it. Because no matter how terrified I was that I would fall, or the ropes would break, or the knots would come undone, or that I would get stuck, or, or, or a million other ors, I was more terrified of sitting up there on that rock forever, knowing in my heart that my fear had bested me.
I rapelled down that cliff.
I waded across the pool at the bottom.
And then I sat on the bank of the river and ate an apple.
I was triumphant. I was mighty. I had conquered the mountain and, more importantly, my own fear. I could do anything.
When my colleagues made it down, we celebrated with lunch and a few photos (that’s us at the top of this post), then began the hour-long trek back to the hotel. As we walked, tired and proud, Rick grinned. “This is the worst part.”
On Being Mighty
If I’d known what that day was going to entail, I wouldn’t have agreed to go “light canyoning”. But the experience changed my life in ways I could never have imagined.
I learned many things that day. I learned that courage is not an absence of fear, but the strength to acknowledge fear and then confront it. I learned that failing once doesn’t mean failing always. And I learned that I can do anything, regardless of how terrifying it feels.
If I can throw myself backwards over a ravine, trusting in a few knotted ropes and a canvas harness to stop me falling to my death, I can take the next step on my writing journey.
And so can you.
When the resolutions you’ve made for 2016 sit there in the back of your head mocking you, and you know with absolute certainty that you can’t take another step – you can’t face the blank page, or submit your work and risk rejection , or do more marketing, or whatever else seems impossible right now – just remember:
This is the worst part.
What’s your most terrifying writing resolution this year?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!