The first thought that ran through my head was, “I don’t want to go cliff jumping.” I had been invited by two of my best friends Travis and Robert to join a group on a day trip up to Blue Cove Hideaway in Tennessee. My friend Robert was leaving the next day for his duty station in Texas to go back on active duty with the Army, and it would be my last chance to see him for, well… I didn’t know.
I was torn.
I wanted to spend the time with my friends. Travis and Robert are my traveling companions – they were with me on the road trip to Florida when my truck caught fire, they came and hiked the Dragon’s Tooth and McAfee’s Knob on the Appalachian Trail with me, we’ve canoed nearly 100 miles of the Suwannee River, almost froze to death together on Blood Mountain one December… we’ve made a lot of good memories together. And I hated the chance to miss making one more, especially when I didn’t know when we’d be able to do it again.
But on the other hand, I really didn’t want to go. I was busy. It was short notice. It was going to take up an entire day. The timing sucked. But the truth of the matter was, I was afraid. I don’t really love heights, so I didn’t relish the prospect of jumping off a cliff that was anywhere from fifteen to sixty feet, even though I’d done it in the past. I had read up on the place we were going, and there had been two deaths there in the past year. Quite honestly, I was dreading it.
But that visceral reaction was my cue that I had to go, whether I wanted to or not. Because as I grow older, I find myself becoming more cautious. More hesitant, and more risk-averse. And I despise it. If I allow passivity to rule, I will fail to achieve the goals I’ve set for myself. In life, it’s the optional challenges that define us. There are some obstacles in our path that we have no choice but to deal with, be it out of duty, contract, or obligation. But there are others, the ones we can sidestep without too much difficulty, the ones where people say they won’t think less of us if we don’t take them on, where there’d be no shame in saying no… those are the ones that grow us, challenge us, edify us when we rise up to meet them. We all have them. And if we want to be better – better men, better leaders, better entrepreneurs, better humans… we’d better seek them out.
So I went. Blue Cove looks like a time capsule from 1977. The only thing to remind us we were in 2017 was the liability waiver we had to sign upon entry, and the Country Top 40 coming in over the radio. The location itself is an abandoned rock quarry, bought decades ago by some enterprising rednecks who recognized its potential as an epic swimming hole. The ladders to climb out of the water are aluminum extension ladders lashed to the rocks with hardware store nylon rope. The rope swing supports are made out of old interstate guardrail.
The zipline stretching hundreds of feet over the quarry was definitely not CCFD Technical Rescue – approved. No harnesses, no safeties, just a steel cable and a pulley that you held onto with two pieces of rope.
Needless to say, it was sketchy.
We started with the fifteen foot jump. It was a quick, fun, leap into cold water on an unseasonably hot October day. Great times. Everybody went for it, and we all did it at least half a dozen times. I could have called it quits there, and no one would have thought less of me. But the higher jumps taunted me. I had to do them. Why? Because they were there. The forty was a little scarier, but still not too bad. But it was the highest one that wouldn’t let me rest. It had a long diving platform (scrap lumber held up by more pieces of interstate guardrail) that stretched far out above the calm water. It afforded a commanding view of the entire quarry. Families playing on the other end looked like they were a mile down. This was the death jump, the one that the two guys had died on the year before – and there were signs everywhere advertising that fact. I couldn’t hesitate any longer. I knew if I thought about it too much, I wouldn’t do it.
So I made the leap. I took off on a dead run and kept on going off the edge. It was a solid six-count before I hit the water. I came up with blood in my mouth. The impact had ripped open my upper lip. It felt good. It felt like life. True, real, authentic life.
The challenge wasn’t over. I needed more. The zipline that stretched over the quarry was five bucks per person, or five rides for $20. We rounded up five guys and climbed the narrow, winding trail along the cliff face to the other side. I wasn’t first to go, but I wasn’t last, either. There was a sweet spot for letting go – too soon and you’d have nearly a hundred foot fall, not to mention you wouldn’t get your money’s worth. Too late and you’d slam into the rocks at the other end. (There was no crash pad of any sort.) And there was also a patch of nearly-exposed rocks in the middle. All totaled, there was about three seconds to make a decision. I let go and dropped straight down. All of the other guys leaned back and penciled in neatly. I didn’t. My feet caught the water and slammed me forward in what was by my estimate a 35-mph belly flop. The impact knocked the breath clean out of me and I came up sucking wind. I remembered my water rescue training, and I tried to calm down and float on my back until I could catch my breath again. Everything hurt. I swore I’d broken a rib, or three. It hurt to stand, it hurt to walk, it hurt to breathe. But in between heaving, I was smiling. I was alive, and I knew it.
Sometimes you’ve gotta get hit hard to know what it’s like to really feel. Sometimes you’ve gotta hurt to know you’re truly alive. The clear, crystalline pain focuses your awareness and drives away fear like nothing else.
This is the case for danger. Not roller-coaster, haunted house, controlled thrills, but actual danger. Real adventures. Doing things where the consequences are concrete, and you may get hurt, or worse. These things don’t have to involve jumping off a cliff, or even anything physical, necessarily. The larger point I’m driving at here is that it has to take you out of your comfort zone. In search & rescue, we do this purposefully. We push ourselves well past the limits of what we’d ever see in the field, training in awful conditions, rappelling off towers, speed-walking with fifty-pound packs… you get the idea. We call these exercises comfort zone expanders. Anything unpleasant, scary, or challenging that ordinarily, you really wouldn’t want to do. Because the broader your comfort zone, the wider the range of situations in which you’ll prevail.
There is no substitute for thriving in dangerous situations, other than putting yourself in dangerous situations and thriving. When the feeling of adrenaline surging and your heart racing is a familiar friend, that’s one less hurdle to overcome when the s*** hits the fan and the whole world is going to hell around you. When you can take a deep breath, center yourself in the situation, and take purposeful, calculated action rather than succumbing to reactionary panic, you become an asset rather than a liability. Danger is the finest building block of a quality that’s rarely discussed in our society these days: resilience.
Can it go badly? Oh, absolutely. There are no guarantees that you won’t get hurt. After my epic belly flop, I had a sharp pain in my side for over a week, and decided to go to the doctor to get checked out. Turns out I had a contusion of my liver, three dislocated ribs, and the kind of whiplash normally seen in car accidents. But the news was comforting. Because if that’s the worst that could happen and it really wasn’t that bad, what’s there to fear in the future? Many times, the things we fear, even if the fear is justified, are well within our capability to handle.
Because no matter how dangerous what you’re doing is, unbridled fear is worse. Fear clouds your judgment. Fear leads to panic. Panic is death. Fear is scientifically proven to reduce your decision-making ability to its most animalistic level. As we discussed in our post on perishable skills, the higher areas of the brain shut down under extreme stress. UNLESS… those neural pathways to the higher brain that allow for calm, reasoned thought have already been blazed by training under similar conditions. I’m not advocating recklessness. Don’t take this as a license to do something stupid.
But I do challenge you take a moment and figure out exactly what it is that scares you the most. The fear may be rational or irrational, but either way, you’ll be stronger just for knowing what it is. And you’ll be even stronger for overcoming it. Because when you break through that wall, you’ll embrace the freedom that was always there. Danger is very real, but fear is a choice. Step out of your comfort zone, do what scares you the most, and realize that the fear that constrained you was nothing but a lie all along.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Dan Beard, one of the last great woodsmen who ever lived and one of the founding fathers of the Boy Scouts of America:
“We must always remember that there is nothing in this life which is not dangerous. The greatest danger of all is not firearms, it is not blades, it is not wild beasts, it is not tornadoes, earthquakes, avalanches, or floods, but it is LUXURY, it is everything which tends to make a man weak, dependent on others, and soft in mind and muscle.”
– Daniel C. Beard, 1920