An illustration of the difference between bravery and bravado
When I was seventeen, I stood on the edge of a thirty-foot platform, took one deep breath, and jumped.
Right before I willingly plummeted towards my imminent death, I remember thinking several things. Things like: I can do this. I am fearless. I am invincible.
Before reality kicked in, I remember using choice adjectives to describe myself. I thought, I am brave. I am strong. I can conquer anything.
I thought I was taking a risk. I thought I was having fun. I thought that was what courage felt like. I thought that by facing the thing that scared me, I would automatically overcome the fear I felt when I stood in front of it. It wasn’t long before my courage faded to bravado, which quickly descended to instantaneous regret.
After what felt like decades of pure, unadulterated terror, I hit the water. Hard. So hard that the impact caused my right foot to sickle out from under me and push my knee in a direction I had not known was anatomically possible. I cried out while I was still underwater. It was painful and disorienting, and I remember immediately thinking, I will never do that again.
I ended up tearing two major ligaments in my knee and underwent surgery to repair the damage. I wore a brace for months and sat on the sidelines for most of my soccer games that year. (That was arguably the worst part of the whole ordeal.)
In hindsight, I can recognize that what could have easily been an endearing story about adventure and glory had swiftly morphed into one of tragedy, suffering, and failed bravado. Sometimes, everything becomes a whole lot clearer once you’re beneath the surface.
Sometimes, the brave things we do are indeed noble and courageous. And other times, all they end up being is painful.
Embrace the inevitable belly flop
Unfortunately, a bum knee is not the only injury in life that I have walked (limped?) away with. I have incurred other casualties from various times of my life. Times where I leapt before I looked and lived life with reckless abandon.
I have had my heart broken exactly one time, and it was the worst thing I have ever endured. If you have ever had your heart broken–or, if you had the misfortune of listening to me while I was heartbroken–you know what it’s like. I’ll save the details for another time, but suffice it to say: I was shattered, a fragment of my former self. Lost and lonely and afraid.
I have since spent a long time trying to crack the code behind why that breakup was so devastating to me, and why it took me so long to recover from it. I still haven’t figured it out (and probably never will) and that’s okay by me. I have enough theories to last a lifetime.
I think the reason why I felt like I had lost everything is because I had offered up exactly that: everything.
When I was in that relationship, I allowed myself to be vulnerable. I looked a person in the eyes and told them I loved them. I let them see parts of me I had never let anyone else see. I held my heart out in my hands and asked them to hold it, to care for it. I asked them to look at my faults and love me anyway.
I built my future around this person. I dreamed my life with them was going to be so beautiful that all other alternatives paled in comparison.
I stood at the edge of that platform, and I went for it. Heck, I basically strapped an anvil to my ankle and dragged it off the cliff with me.
She was the water, and I dove right in. And sometimes, when you dive, you win a gold medal and barely make a splash.
Other times, you belly flop.
The way I see it, both alternatives are valuable when it comes to personal growth. And neither alternative should scare you away from jumping. Let me explain.
The first part of the experience is when you are standing on the platform. You are thinking about all the possibilities and are secure in your perception of it. You think you know what to expect. You feel excited and confident; you think, Nothing could possibly go wrong. And while you recognize that what you are about to do might be the dumbest thing you have ever come up with, you feel compelled to do it anyway.
The second part is the plunge. You take the step, the leap, the dive and you offer up any sense of control. If you enjoy the rush that comes from free-falling, you likely feel excitement, adrenaline, and maybe even peace. If you’re anything like me, however, your stomach has relocated to your throat and you think, Everything is going terribly wrong. You cannot find your bearings and it kind of feels like you might be dying. You feel fear, and you do not like it.
The last part is when you hit the water. I don’t feel like I need to elaborate much on this one. Best case scenario: you submerge with little more than a splash. Worst case scenario: well, SPLAT. (I’m kidding, kind of.)
The problem with taking risks is that we never really know whether they will pay off or not. We don’t know if we will win or lose, fall or fly, sink or swim. But I don’t really want to focus on the importance of taking risks just yet. First, I want to talk about the plunge.
Feel the fear and do it anyway
I heard this phrase quite frequently when I was growing up. I thought about it often and tried to make it into something I lived by. I liked the idea of recognizing your fear without giving power to it. The idea that you could face something difficult with acceptance and bravery.
I am learning that I am better at this in theory than I am in practice.
Doing something that scares me is hard. Facing what makes me feel small and vulnerable is not something I enjoy. It has taken me almost a month to finish this blog post; writing this has been hard for me. Hard because I don’t like feeling exposed, and I like talking about how I feel even less.
There are two reasons that I can identify that explain why this process has been anything but smooth for me. The first is that I generally have a hard time discussing things I experience that show me as vulnerable. I am not the first person to offer up her feelings or admit that she feels insecure about something (*cough* or, everything). And if I am going to write about facing fear and having the courage to be vulnerable, then obviously I am going to have to talk about how I have learned about the relevance and importance of both of those things.
The second reason–and maybe the more accurate of the two–is that I am still figuring fear out. I have been learning more and trying to become an expert, but there are several aspects of fear and vulnerability that remain elusive to me. And as good as I have become at looking fear in the face and giving it a harrowing glare, sometimes it takes me a while to realize that it had already started a staring contest with me.
So as much as I would like to say that I have all the solutions to facing fear and being vulnerable, the truth is pretty much the opposite. I am still learning, but I think I am finally getting somewhere.
Don’t let the fear of drowning become worse than the dive itself
When I jumped off that platform, I took the majority of my control and put it in the hands of something bigger (the universe… the heavens… gravity…). I was at the mercy of these outside forces and once I jumped, there was really nothing I could do but see it through to the end. I let myself be vulnerable in every aspect of the word. It was terrifying and uncomfortable and haunting. I still have nightmares about falling to my death to this day.
Needless to say, I haven’t jumped off any platforms since. It is a risk I am unwilling to take.
Sometimes, taking a risk is the hardest thing we could possibly think about doing. It is equally terrifying to face the unknown as it is to face a result you know from experience will happen. Some of us avoid risk because we cannot stand the idea of falling. Others avoid risk because we cannot stand the idea of failing.
After you get hurt enough times, it’s easy to create a world where the fear of drowning is worse than the dive itself. Why make the jump when you could belly flop? Why take the chance when you could get hurt?
With a broken heart that was mending, I decided to make drastic changes to the way I lived my life. I identified common themes I wanted to see and specific experiences I wanted to have. I asked myself what kinds of adjectives I would use to describe my choices.
Would I describe them as ordinary? Would I describe them as safe?
In certain points in my life, specifically those where I felt particularly broken or vulnerable, I think the adjectives I would have used were synonymous with those kinds of words. I was rarely adventurous or brave. I played by the rules and minimized the pain. I never even climbed the ladder, let alone stood at the edge.
At some point, I started to realize this about myself and about my life. I realized that I had played it safe. That I had stopped taking risks or instigating change or challenging my own beliefs. I had stopped reading and I had stopped writing. I rarely laughed or connected with people. I gave up setting goals or dreaming about new possibilities. I stopped living.
I don’t remember the exact moment when I decided to start being vulnerable again. Maybe it was when I decided to transfer to a different college. Maybe it was when I went to my first pride parade. Maybe it was when I started reading again, living the lives of characters in books right alongside them.
I don’t know exactly when it was, and honestly, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I did it. I climbed the ladder. I stood at the precipice, and I jumped. Over and over again, I jumped. And sometimes I fell, but it didn’t matter. I just kept on jumping.
It would be easy to say that I did that because I was brave. That my entire countenance shifted to make me into a person who no longer felt fear.
But the truth is: I just wanted better adjectives. I wanted to be able to describe my life with the words I fell in love with in books. Eventually, those same words I used to only read about in books, I actually got to live in real life. I wanted to live like a heroine, so eventually I did.
I realized that if I wanted to live a life that rose above fear and doubt and insecurity, then I myself needed to first overcome those things. I stepped outside of my comfort zone. I stopped allowing the fear of pain or failure to dictate my choices. I looked down at the water and I did not let myself turn back towards the ladder.
What I have learned is that some of the best moments of my life came from instances where I let myself be vulnerable. The first time I kissed the girl I loved or sang in front of an audience. The first time I came out to someone I barely knew. The first time I moved away from home to chase my dreams. I look forward to more good moments as beautiful as these were. I’ll keep jumping if it means I can have more like that.
Ultimately, I think the change was wrought through smaller choices. The choice to make small talk with a complete stranger. To speak up in class when I had an opinion. To cry in front of other people. To ask for help when I needed it. Those seemingly insignificant choices we make, between being vulnerable and being afraid, have the power to alter the course of our entire lives. We have to climb the ladder. We have to stand on the ledge.
You need to jump so you can reach the water
The secret is that not the act of jumping that is most important, neither is it swimming once you hit the water. What’s most important is the fall. When you are weightless and afraid and vulnerable. That’s where the transformation happens. It isn’t until you hit the water that you realize the change is evident.
My life would have been so much easier if I had never taken certain risks. I probably wouldn’t feel so much doubt and insecurity. And I definitely would have avoided a great deal of pain.
But I wouldn’t have had the chance to pick up the broken pieces of myself and forge them into something stronger. I wouldn’t have traveled to foreign countries or met some of the best people I know.
I would have missed out on growth, on opportunity, on love. And I have discovered that those are things I cannot live without.
What I am trying to say is that every time you take a risk, you are choosing to be vulnerable. You’re taking control of your fears and asking them to step aside. You’re looking life in the eyes and asking it to hold your heart. You’re jumping off that platform and asking the water not to break your leg.
You’re giving something else the power to hurt you, and you’re trusting that it won’t.
Sometimes, you will hit the water hard. You’ll execute a belly flop so gloriously embarrassing that even your awkward, twelve-year-old self will laugh at you. You will get hurt. You will feel broken. You will feel lost and confused and won’t know which way is up. You will think you are drowning. You will do everything in your power to prevent that mortifying history from repeating itself. You will hear the voices in your head saying, Don’t try that again, and you will be compelled to listen.
But please, please, please. Do not listen.
Because what that voice inside your head doesn’t tell you is that even though sometimes you flop, other times you fly. You become weightless and infinite. You learn that the thing that was keeping you from climbing the ladder is the very same thing you need in order to jump. You discover that falling is the most important part. You need to jump so you can find the water. And once you find the water and submerge beneath it’s surface, you find a whole new world exists underneath.
On the way down, just before you hit the water, you will think to yourself: I am brave. I am strong. I can conquer anything.
And, my loves, you’ll be right.