It’s funny how much stuff can affect you. I’ve talked (and written) about this incident a lot – a journal entry when it happened, an essay in college, a blog post now – but sometimes seemingly innocent things blindside you with their importance, and this experience clearly has become (for me) a bit of a meditation on the nature of fear and, darn it, if I’m not still learning from it. Here’s the latest I’ve come to understand:
Many years ago I participated in an outward bound-type of outdoor orientation program before starting college — a sort of pre-orientation orientation (sponsored by the school) to my freshman year. You know the kind of trip – take a bunch of about-to-be college students, take away their watches (so they’re on “nature’s time”), pile them into a bus, drive them up to the woods (hmmm, this is actually starting to sound like the beginning of a horror movie, but it wasn’t like that, I swear), hike them into some remote location, teach them to build lean-tos (no tents for these overprivileged teenagers), and have them participate in a randomized selection of outdoor activities that are meant to foster self-confidence and bonding – activities like caving, and white-water canoeing, and rock-climbing. I LOVED IT. No kidding, the trip was amazing! I remember being excited and exhilarated, and, yes scared, but that fear manifested more as excitement and exhilaration than as fear. The thing is that with the rock climbing and the caving I definitely had those moments of “oh shit, I’m totally gonna die” and that was super scary but the feeling was very recognizable as fear. I could look at it and say, “Nope! That ain’t going to stop me! I am DOING THIS!” and, you know, I did it. I climbed the rock. I paddled the canoe. I plunged into (and emerged from) the cave.
(SIDEBAR – I should mention, if you’re anything like me, these particular caves were not the kind of caves you picture when you think “cave.”
You know those wide open spaces where you stand around with a group and say, “ooh look – stalactites, stalagmites.” No, siree, Bob! This was more of a wedge-yourself-into-very-tight-spaces-between-two-enormous-prehistoric-slabs-of-rock-hope-you’re-not-claustrophobic-and-if-you-weren’t-going-in-you-will-be-coming-out-oh-and-by-the-way-it’s-freezing-wet-and-super-muddy-caving-with-a-capital-C-CAVING kinda thing.)
But, I digress. In the end, whether caving or rock climbing, the fear was clearly, you know, FEAR, and so, it was (well, not exactly easy to disperse but) at least identifiable as fear and therefore face-able. But then came the high elements course and the fear I experienced during it was a whole different animal. It was invisible. It wasn’t identifiable as fear. It was more easily named indifference.
“What’s a high elements course,” you ask? Well it’s a sort of obstacle/ropes course, about 50 feet in the air, suspended from trees.
Nowadays you’ve seen things like it on American Gladiators, and other shows of that ilk, but at the time I’d never even heard of such a thing, let alone been expected to participate in one. These courses can be constructed in different ways, but basically, it’s a series of challenges comprised of logs, ropes, and wires suspended in the air. This particular one had an incline log, a balance beam log, a wire walk thing (two horizontal wires – one about 5 feet above the other – suspended between two trees) where you walk on the bottom wire and hold the top wire for balance, a series of ropes hanging from a wire between two trees where you had to cross from one tree to the other by transferring to each rope (Tarzan style), and, lastly, a platform with a trapeze (which, spoiler alert was too far away to reach even if you really jumped for it).
For the whole course you’re belayed (harness and safety ropes) and you traverse the course with your teammates yelling encouragement from the ground. Sounds great, right? What could be scary about that, right? I mean, how could it be scarier than rock climbing or rappelling or white water canoeing, right? Even 50 feet in the air, in the rain with all the surfaces slippery as all get out, right?
See, here’s the thing. I didn’t think I was afraid at all. I just had zero interest in doing the course. What it boils down to is that all of the other challenges – the rock climbing, the caving, the canoeing, hell, even the zip lining, I had heard about before. I was ready for them. I was expecting them. They were “things people did.” Even if it was just to face the challenges of nature, or just to get an adrenaline rush, all of these things were things that made some sort of sense to me. Yes, they were man’s attempt at conquering nature but in a practical way – “I need to get from here to there but there’s a cave, or a river, or a mountain in the way so I’ll crawl through that cave, or canoe down that river, or climb that mountain.” I mean that makes sense to me. But this? This arbitrary man-made construct suspended 50 feet in the air? Uh yeah, that made exactly zero sense at all. Especially in the rain.
So, when it came my turn to do the course, the guide was all, “Jessica, you’re up.” And I remember just thinking, “nope. I’ll pass.” I think I even said, “nope. I’ll pass.” When he insisted, I explained (very rationally, I’m sure) that I just didn’t have any interest in doing the course. He said, “there’s no reason to be afraid,” and I was shocked (SHOCKED, I tell you) that he would even consider it. “I’m not scared,” I said. “I just don’t see the point.” I was, no kidding, 100% certain that I was not afraid at all. I told myself I was indifferent. I told myself it was pointless. I told myself it was an arbitrary man-made construct and there was absolutely no reason I needed to participate in it. I was pretty self-righteous about it too, to be honest.
I told myself that if I was scared, I would feel, you know, scared. So, I resolved not to do the course. In the end, I was, in fact, the last person in my group to do it. And the only reason – the ONLY reason – I even stepped foot on that first log was because my guide (whose name I can’t remember but who I do remember was ridiculously cute in a Teva-wearing, “no outdoor challenge is too much for me” kinda way) asked me to just try the first challenge as a “personal favor” to him. So I did (because I never could resist doing a personal favor for a cute guy) and by the time I was up the log I realized that there were only two ways off the course – either freak right the fuck out and have to be lowered down to the ground like a goat in a sling (sorry, Jurassic Park reference), or just finish the damn course. And, not wanting to be the goat I just finished the damn course.
And here’s what I discovered at the end when I was leaping off the platform to grab the too-far-away trapeze. Number 1: I was absolutely sure that I was going to catch it. Number 2: harnesses hurt your crotch like a son of a bitch when they catch all of your weight. And, Number 3: there are all kinds of fear.
Sometimes you see your fear coming. Sometimes, you grab your fear by the throat and wrestle it to the ground. Sometimes, you outsmart your fear by consciously pretending it’s not there. And sometimes, it really feels like it’s not there. It masks itself as indifference and with that indifference it’s really easy to just ignore it and move on to the next thing. BUT, here’s the danger with that, and, by the way, here’s the point of this entire blog post (way to bury the lede, right?): If you think you’re indifferent to it and you ignore it and move on to the next thing? Yeah, in the end I’m sure it will be fine. That next thing will be great and you’ll move along a little less brave and none the wiser BUT, you’ll miss it. I will say that again because it’s important – You. Will. Miss. It.
You’ll miss that big, beautiful, juicy, amazing, life-altering, wonderful feeling. Because, even though I didn’t catch that trapeze (and even though that harness hurt!) for that millisecond, when I jumped, I was SURE I was going to catch it. I was absolutely POSITIVE it was in my grasp. I knew it was impossible AND I knew I was going to do it. I believed wholeheartedly in that – in the possibility of the impossible. And even though, in the end, I didn’t actually catch the trapeze (because, big surprise, physics always works) that feeling never went away. From that moment on, that feeling turned out to be a new truth for me: The impossible isn’t just possible it will happen. If you push, and you try, and you believe, and you face your fear – IT. WILL. HAPPEN. And, I would have missed it. I would have missed that lesson, that understanding. And I never would have realized that fear is insidious. Fear can stop you not just cold, but also kinda lukewarm. You need to guard against it and you need to be vigilant because that thing you’re calling indifference? Yeah, most of the time, it’s just fear in indifference’s clothing. Don’t let it stall you. Don’t let it stop you. Don’t let it rule you.
So what does all this have to do with production? I mean this is a blog post on a production company’s website, after all. Well here’s the deal…this job is hard. This industry is hard. We work and we struggle and we face our fears in the hopes of success and wealth, yes, but also because we are compelled to tell stories. We’re compelled to reach people. If we could do anything else in the universe with as much joy as we do this, we absolutely would. Hands down! No one – NO ONE – would choose this if any of us had a choice. I mean there’s no two ways about it. This struggling thing? It sucks. But it’s also who we are. And when something comes up professionally, you think, “Oh, big scary thing. I’m knocking that puppy down.” I think we all do that. But, what I’m saying here is, sadly, that’s not enough. Because sometimes the big scary thing isn’t big and scary at all. Sometimes we look at it and think, “yeah, I’m just not interested in that right now. I’m going to go watch reruns of West Wing instead.” And that’s the danger. We get lulled into that place of, “but I’m tired. I’ve been doing this for years with varying degrees of success, and I just want to binge-watch Netflix right now.” I hear you. Believe me. And you want to watch West Wing for a day, a weekend, hell even a whole week? Go for it, you deserve it. BUT, after that day, that weekend, that whole week, I am telling you – Put on that harness, hook up your safety ropes, do the favor for the cute guy, and just Get. On. The. FUCKING. Course. Here and now, I promise you it will be worth it. I promise you that you will be rewarded for it. In fact, I promise you – I PROMISE YOU – that if you climb up that first log and you get onto that damn course, in the end you will jump for that trapeze with all that you are and you will float down from the trees KNOWING for a fact that the impossible is yours for the taking.
And so, for now, I leave you with two of my favorite motivational memes:
You CAN do the thing…so just go do it.