I loathe cowardice; but I am afraid of heights. I experience self loathing every time I trek to anywhere above 5 thousand feet. But I do climb with some frequency to heights of 8 thousand feet. It is a dream of mine to ascend Machu Picchu. Now why is this?
There is a saying, “Don’t let fear be your only boundary.” I think that is what drives me to climb to the heights. By conquering fear, I become free. This is a good thought but although it leads to good pictures, I do not feel liberated (or able to breathe deeply) until it’s over.
Fear is more crippling than a broken leg. Bones heal. Fear is always there waiting to release adrenaline and cause my palms to sweat, heart to race, and breathing to become shallow. Although I am not in any danger, I feel as though I am. Fear controls my perception and since there can be only one reality, the threat appears real.
My son has a dog that is afraid of loud, sudden noises, so the firecrackers on 4th of July are a nightmare for him. He cowers, trembles and hangs his head with mouth open and pants until he drools. On the last 4th, I sat, trying to comfort him with gentle whispers and hugs. A bomb burst in midair and he leapt from my arms and hid under the desk. His fear was too powerful for me to soothe. I stared at him and realized that was me on a mountainside. Short of an earthquake, I was not going to fall off the mountain. But my reason couldn’t override my instincts.
I have two choices: I can yield to fear and stay where it’s safe or I can push back.
I can accept that the sensation of fear is inevitable and that by staying on the ground, safe and sound, I can drink more coffee, read more books, and be at peace. I can meditate, while others strap on packs and water bottles to ascend the peaks. But there are so many events in life that come attached with the price tag of fear. Writing is one of them. I wrote with a voice in my mind saying, “No one is ever going to read this.” If I hadn’t pushed back against that voice, American Family, my debut novel, would never have been published.
So my second choice is to push my trembling, weak kneed body up the hill so I can reap the rewards grand vistas. I can say to myself, I did it. I refused to cave in to fear. I gain power from pushing against fear. When I am up high, I enjoy the vision of the enormity of the world and the power of nature. Glaciers scrape up mountains and drops of water patiently, persistently cut through rock. Forest fires rage over miles of territory but trees grow back. Volcanoes form the highest peaks as they explode and then stand dormant for thousands of years.
No, I’ll never stop climbing. Maybe it is the struggle with fear that is the goal. I will never prance carefree and gazelle-like up a mountain. No matter how many times I hike up, I will not be without that sickening anxiety. Still, when I find myself struggling to find the right word or phrase and that voice hisses, “You’ll never be a real writer,” I can remind myself that I have scrambled over rocks and felt proud as I looked down at the valley. I didn’t stop then and I am not going to stop now.