One of my stipulations in joining the military was that I had to have a job where I jumped out of planes. Why was this so important to me? Because I was deathly afraid of heights. Climbing a tall ladder pushed my limits and I had trouble walking up certain types of stairs without hugging the wall opposite the railing.
How am I now, after leaping through the open door of countless planes in mid-flight? I still get vertigo around heights, but I have to be pretty high up to do even that and I'm not afraid anymore.
Facing my fear and pushing my boundaries has become a part of how I live my life. I've gone on solo backpacking expeditions through bear country. I learned to sea kayak. On the list for future years are open mic nights - one with an acoustic guitar at a local coffee shop and a second in front of a crowd of hecklers at a comedy club's amateur night.
For me, fear is simply something that says, "You can't do this." The thing is, fear isn't real. It's an illusion. When I stood in the open door of the airplane, feeling the wind yanking at my clothes and trying to pull me out into the sky, the reality is that I'm still in the plane. I haven't jumped. Realistically, I can guess what will happen but the moment has yet to be brought to life. Fear says, "This is what will happen if you jump," but it doesn't know. No one knows. In the vast majority of situations it's our choice whether to shriek a terrified scream or to whoop out a "Wahoo!"
I was terrified of heights and jumping from an airplane was my idea of staring into the jaws of a hideously ravenous beast. Standing in the cargo plane, preparing to hurl myself into the air, there was no Hollywood moment where I suddenly figured it out, became brave, and simply embraced my fate.
Instead, I opened my mouth and sang.
Standing in the midst of a class of other paratroopers, I sang at the top of my lungs. I sang every song I knew, from hits on the radio to "The Itsy Bitsy Spider." As the drone of the engines and the roar of the wind tried to drown me out, I simply sang louder. Faces turned to stare at me. Some of us were recruits, qualifying for Airborne units or preparing to move on to Ranger training. Mixed into the bunch were Green Berets maintaining their jump qualifications and Navy SEALS and Marine Force Recon for whom this was the last stop in their training. And there I stood in the midst of some of the most elite soldiers in the world, singing at the top of my lungs.
And they began to sing with me.
The plane was filled with broad smiles and baritone renditions of childhood tunes. We sang as the plane gained altitude and sang louder as it banked before leveling out on its approach to the drop zone. As the jump master called out, "Stand UP!" every voice went silent - even my own. The fear returned just as great as before. There was no moment of, "...and now, brothers in song, I followed my newly forged family into the abyss." As we stood in that plane and the jump master called out, "Hook UP!" and we attached our rip cords to a stationary cable, all I could see around me were parachutes and the backs of combat helmets.
My childhood was not a pretty stretch of road. I ended up pretty battered. There was a day, back when I was only six years old, when I made a decision about my life and found myself getting angry. It wasn't hatred; it was defiance. The "bad people" could be bigger than me, they could be stronger than me, and they could do things to me that I couldn't stop, but they couldn't defeat me. I refused to let them win. My philosophy became, "You can hit me, but I'm still standing. You can beat me 'til I can't stand, but I'm still breathing. You can beat me 'til I stop breathing, but then you'll go to jail and I'll be some place where you can't touch me - and even then, you can't defeat me."
During my first grade year, as the calendar began to draw to a close, I had spied a plastic mouse Christmas ornament hanging from our tree and claimed as my own. It was my favorite toy and Mouse traveled everywhere in my pocket, safe and protected from the world around the two of us. You can draw whatever metaphor you'd like from that connection, but I truly cherished that little mouse.
Our apartment complex was home to a bully - a sixth grader named Chris who attended the same K-6 grade school that I attended. I can still remember the scene as I looked up now and again from where Mouse and I were playing alone in the snow: Chris began pushing around a child even smaller than me. There were no teachers in sight. The little kid began to cry. Chris kept pushing. The kid was on the ground. Chris was kneeling over the kid with his hand raised in a fist.
Moments later, Chris was running off with a bloody nose and I was returning to where I'd left my mouse to resume playing alone in the snow.
This became a pattern at our school. Chris was three times my size and twice my age. In his brain, there was no way that I could beat him in a fight. If he got in my face, I just ignored him. If he kept pushing me, I'd walked away in the face of his insults or retreat back into the classroom to sit alone through recess. As winter turned to spring, Chris discovered that I had a trigger, that I wouldn't allow a smaller child to be hurt in my presence. The pattern was always the same - Chris would make a little kid cry as he began to hurt them and I'd come to their rescue. Chris was a giant of a bully; I was scrappy and came up hard. We fought once every two weeks or so, in full sight of the other students, until teachers would miraculously appear to separate the two of us. Each time Chris and I fought, my parents were called to the school. Each time, as we sat in his office, the principal explained that I was simply protecting a younger student, but that fighting wasn't okay and that I should get a teacher the next time it happened. And each time, Chris would be suspended.
It was during one of his suspensions that Chris stepped out of the bushes in front of me as I walked home from school alone. The path I followed wove behind a handful of thick evergreen trees and we were secluded in a place where no one could see us. Chris smiled, a carefully plotted darkness in his grin. I couldn't figure out why he was so proud of himself. After all, our confrontations ended the same way every time.
And then two kids, even bigger than Chris, stepped out of the trees as well.
The older boys grabbed my arms and held me in place as Chris began to take out his frustrations on my body, punching me as hard as he could, over and over, until he was tired and my face was pink and beginning to swell.
"That will teach you," he grinned as he stepped back panting for breath, his triumph echoing in his words.
I only knew one response. As I glared at him, Chris stared in disbelief as I calmly thrust my words into the air.
"You didn't win."
His face twisted in rage and a growl tore from his lips as he rushed me, the older boys still holding tightly to my arms. Savagely, Chris beat me, far beyond the boundaries of playground rules. "I'm bigger than you!" he'd scream as he put his significant weight behind each punch. To each challenge I'd gasp in return, "You can't beat me!"
Chris hit me like he was trying to beat down a door. As he tired, drenched with sweat and flecks of my blood, the flurry of punches slowed. At one point, Chris had the two older boys lower me so he could kick me while he rested his arms, only to raise me to be his punching bag once more. Each time, when Chris paused for breath, I'd stare him down and say, "You didn't win."
Chris began to cry. Sobbing, he hit me over and over, his challenges turning to begging. "Just say 'uncle,'" he'd plead, his voice nearly hysterical. "Just say, 'uncle,' and I'll stop hitting you."
Each of us has a range of experience. For most, our darkest emotions are marked by heartbreak and our highest heights by love. When you're the product of an affair and forgotten as soon as your parents conceive a child of their own, when you've been violated by every non-family member that has watched over you, when you've experienced more suffering by first grade than most will experience in a lifetime, your range of emotions has different extremes. His ambush had carried Chris farther into the darkness than he'd ever experienced; for me, we were still on familiar emotional ground.
Chris stepped back his eyes red, his cheeks streaked with tears. I raised my face, literally dripping blood, and glared at him through eyes that were nearly swollen shut. My words were slurred, but they were laced with steel.
"You can't beat me."
Chris came forward once more, but there was no conviction as he began to hit me again. "Just say, 'uncle,'" he sobbed, not knowing that I couldn't let him win, that if he beat me all of those that had hurt me would win as well. That if he won, all of the smaller children would lose their protector and be at his mercy. He was fighting for his pride; I fought for my very soul. There was never any question regarding who would win the fight.
Sobbing, Chris kept working my body like an exhausted boxer at a heavy bag. The older boys began to plead with him to stop, their voices quivering with fear. I heard them talking, but it was hard to make out what they were saying. Everything was becoming quiet. I defied Chris out of habit, not able to hear my own words, no longer feeling pain, only sensing my body's movement each time he struck me.
I wasn't sure why, but I could feel the ground beneath me where I knelt on the cool grass. I think I had lost consciousness. One of the older boys was crouched before me, holding me by both shoulders and looking into my eyes. "Kid, just say he won and we'll let you go home."
I began to cry. He was so much bigger than Chris. The tears stung as they crossed the abrasions on my face, as they dripped over my split and bloody lips.
I looked him straight in the eye and shook my head. "No. You can't beat me either. None of you can."
The boy looked confused. His friend stepped into my field of vision and said something I didn't hear. I remember them pointing in the distance and yelling something. Chris sobbed in a heap on the ground. The next thing I knew I was stumbling toward home.
I was so severely beaten and suffered so much brain trauma that I spiked a temperature that maxed out the thermometer. In response, my parents gave me a popsicle and had me lay down on the couch. I kept fading in and out of consciousness. Sometime later, someone woke me and I found Chris and his dad standing in front of me. Chris looked smaller than I remembered him being at school. His dad stared at me, a look of horror on his face. I kept hearing him ask my parents, over and over, "Shouldn't we take him to a hospital?" and my parents jovial reply, "No. He'll be fine. Boys will be boys." Chris apologized. I told him it was okay. He apologized again. Once more I assured him he was forgiven.
I think he was still apologizing as his father led him angrily from our apartment.
Chris never bullied another child again - and he and I became the best of friends. The next time I saw him cry was when his family moved away and he told me that he already missed me. We hugged, not in the way that grade school boys do, but in the way that grown men who have survived a disaster together embrace each other. For days after he left, I'd walk by his empty apartment, feeling the void Chris had left in my world. Whatever had happened that day when he stepped out of the bushes had changed him. He was no longer a threat, only a friend.
It can be argued that my approach to fear isn't particularly healthy. I respond that I didn't grow up - I was forged. Since that day I've faced down an entire gang on the streets of Baltimore armed only with an umbrella, sang on stage in front of a maximum capacity audience (having never before sang in public), married my amazing wife two months after meeting her, and single-handedly stopped a violent mosh bit of drunk adults as it threatened numerous young children with injury at an all-ages concert. Throughout my entire life, the one thing people have said to me over and over again when they're around me is, "I feel safe when I'm with you."
Thankfully, life doesn't bring extreme challenges to us every day, so I've turned my defiance into a tool instead of wearing it as armor. Now I take the things I'm afraid of (public speaking, a fear of heights, having a novel torn apart by those that read it), I stare them in the eye and say, "You can't beat me." People look at the things I do, the challenges that I take on and say, "Wow! I wish I could do that," and I never know how to say, "You have no idea how much being like this cost me."
When I began to study shamanism with Nukah, I learned to see beyond the immediate and understand the flow of reality behind a position, a perspective, or a prejudice. I discovered that I could take, "You can't beat me," along with the countless other lessons that I learned along the way and unravel them. Those individual threads became useful, not just to me, but to others. I can teach classes on facing fear and speak from experience on the entire concept. "Our fears are simply illusions. When we stand before a moment, we have no idea how it will turn out. Instead of allowing ourselves to say, 'This will turn out bad,' why don't we say, 'This will be so good,' instead? If we're going to choose to experience an emotion over an unknown event, let's choose to experience something pleasant. Zen would teach us not to feel an emotion, but to simply be mindful and in the moment. If you haven't reached that place on your own path, find something good to imagine and use it as a light to hold the shadows of fear at bay."
As I prepared to jump from the cargo plane, as our voices grew still, waiting for the command of, "GO! GO! GO!" my thoughts were not of hurtling to my death, but of proudly earning my jump wings. Was I scared? Definitely. There wasn't anything I could do about being scared. But if I'd learned anything along the way, it was that I could choose what I focused on and I wouldn't let fear beat me.
Years later, my son found himself facing a fear of his own. He had to give a speech in front of his entire second grade class and the thought of doing so scared him. I encouraged him, becoming a mirror that showed him his innate intelligence and charisma. We talked about what he worried might happen and I asked him if he had something good he could think about instead. He shook his head. None of my suggestions were useful to him and he declined each as his answer.
"Wait a minute, Gavin," I told him. "I have something for you."
A few minutes later I was back.
I told my son that I was scared of heights - and that I chose to jump out of planes anyway. I even told him that I'd been so scared that I'd had to sing as loud as I could before each jump. We talked and I told him that being brave isn't about not being afraid, but in doing what you know you need to do even when it's the thing that scares you.
Then I held out my hand.
"They gave me these for being brave and facing my fear," I told him. "And I think you should have them."
Gavin looked at the jump wings I held in my hand, then shifted his gaze to me, his eyes wide with a mixture of disbelief and wonder.
"You're brave too," I told him. "You can't think of anything happy to think about, but you're going to give your speech anyway, right?"
"Then you've earned these in exactly the same way that I earned them - by doing something you knew you needed to do even though you were scared of doing it."
Gavin gave me a huge hug.
He got an "A" on his speech.
And the jump wings are still proudly displayed on his bedroom wall.