A couple of Saturdays ago we took a trip to Stone Mountain Park to celebrate the ninth anniversary of our daughter’s adoption. When looking over fun day trip options for our “family day”, the kids chose Stone Mountain not so much for the mountain itself, but for the new ropes adventure course that was built there. It shouldn’t have surprised me then that after entering the park they made a bee-line for the ropes course. To be honest, I was kind of excited about it too. All these great memories of being a camp counselor and leading people on the low elements course came flooding back to my mind. What’s not to love about a ropes course, right? We had arrived fairly early so were able to snake our way through the line pretty fast. Before we knew it young 20 somethings were strapping us up with harnesses and rope. I think this was my first moment of fear. They were just strapping up in so fast with no moment of, “now let’s check your connections to make sure they are secure, and now let’s test the rope.” Instead of some camp bonding experience it was more like a cattle line. (Let me be clear, I do not think the workers were being negligent here. I actually think the course is very safe. The workers were just neither warm nor fuzzy).
Pretty soon we were climbing up the stairs and waiting for our turn to go out on the landing. At this point our rope and harness contraptions were hooked into a metal bar overhead that ran the length of the course. Nervous anticipation built as our last guide told us the rules for one person on an element at a time and no more than four on a landing. And then, we were off. We walked out onto the first landing and navigated the first couple of elements which were basically like balance beams with a rail on the side to hold onto. I remember getting a little weak-kneed when I looked down, but so far so good. Then came the moment when the handrails on the elements disappeared. We had the choice to climb through a rope bridge type thing or to walk the balance beam with just our own two feet and belay rope to rely on. My daughter, the ex-gymnast went first. She never paused nor took a breath as she glided along the balance beam. Then went my husband, following behind her, his typical non-ruffled self. When it was my son’s turn he paused for a moment and then decided to climb across the ropes (he’s always been a bit of a monkey). He took his time, but did just fine.
And then it was just me. Standing and staring at my choices. I hadn’t noticed it before, but now it was evident to me that the big difference between these elements and the ones I had loved at camp were that these were so very HIGH. We were at least one story up on the easy course and then the elements got higher from there. How had I, the one who is so afraid of heights not noticed this obvious fact until this very moment? First, I examined at the balance beam. It didn’t seem so bad from far off, but once I got up to it I noticed the conspicuous absence of anything to hold onto as well as the lack on anything between it and the ground. For some reason I just couldn’t make myself step out into what seemed like such empty space. I switched my focus to the rope bridge. I liked the fact that there was something for my hands to hold on to, but now I was noticing how thin the ropes seemed and how far apart from each other they were. I lifted my foot to climb onto the element, but the first cross rope was a large step away from the platform and my leg just didn’t seem to want to stretch that far.
I looked up and noticed that my family had now moved on through a couple of elements without me. Another family was coming up behind me and breathing down my neck. My heart started pounding as I tried to will my body to move out into space. I wished that I had more time. I wished one of the guides would come out and help me work through the trust issues that I was obviously having with my belay. Didn’t a small counseling session come with the Adventure tickets? After a while, time and pressure got the best of me. Calling out to my family in the far distance, I waved them on and turned to the pushy little boy behind me and asked him to let my by. I’m not sure I can describe the feeling I had walking back across that landing, but the best I can say is it felt like failure. The first young guide steered me to the exit area and the next young guide asked me, a little too perkily, if I’d had a good time and how far I’d gotten. I replied with a curt, “NO” and a look that prevented any more perky questions.
As I found a spot under the course to watch my family and take pictures of their journey, I couldn’t help feeling angry and disappointed at myself. Especially when I watched my family climb to the higher course and then test their courage by starting to walk the elements BACKWARDS. Why do I struggle with fear when courage and daring come so easily to the rest of my kin? I had let fear steal me away from having fun completing the course with my family on what was supposed to be our special day together. In my head I knew that the course was safe, that I should trust the belay, and that sometimes you just have to push past the fear and take a leap. But when push came to shove (have I mentioned the impatient boy behind me?), I just couldn’t make myself step out there. What I really wanted to do was get back in line and give it another try, but the wait was now long and I knew I wouldn’t make it back on before the rest of my family was through.
I’m still not exactly sure what to make of this experience except that sometimes centering down is quite hard, especially when there is no actual ground below me in which to ground myself. I, like the rest of humanity, am a broken, imperfect person. Some days I just won’t get it right. But I know something else. It’s not over between me and the Stone Mountain Adventure Course. Someday I will find my way back there at an early, uncrowded hour with no pushy kid behind me. I will take my time, breathe, and have a get- to- know -you session with my belay. And I will try again. Maybe, hopefully this time I’ll take that first step out in faith. I’m pretty sure it will get easier from there. I’m not saying I’ll be walking backwards, or anything. But as a work in progress, maybe my next try will go a little better than the last. Sometimes that’s just what grace looks like. Because we are more than than the sum of our fears.