I like to have my feet firmly planted on the ground. In fact, my biggest fear is practically anything that keeps that from happening . That includes roller coasters, skydiving, bungee jumping, zip-lining, etc. Any situation in which I’m not safe on the ground gives me anxiety and stress. I feel like I don’t have control and I’m at the mercy of some sort of equipment. There are people that see that risk as a thrill and a challenge and chasing that makes them feel alive. I am NOT that kind of person. However, I put those fears to the test a couple times this summer while on vacation in Tennessee. The experiences I’m about to talk about may not seem like big deals at all, but for me they were huge accomplishments because they meant my feet weren’t going to be on the ground.
When someone suggested we go whitewater rafting, I didn’t want to blatantly say no. It wasn’t anything I had ever done before, so naturally I freaked out internally. The closest I had ever come to whitewater rafting was floating down the Meramac, hardly the class four rapids I’d likely encounter. The plan was for me, my dad, and my brother-in-law, Kevin, to go rafting while my mom and my sister, Laura, went shopping. I didn’t want to throw a wrench in those plans. But I was terrified. Again, this might not seem like a big deal in the slightest. For me, though, it was way out of my comfort zone. I imagined the worst case scenario in which I fall out of the raft and get caught in the currents. Not likely to happen, sure, but it would be just my luck that it would.
We eventually get to the day. I still hadn’t voiced my concerns, so at that point I was in too deep. There was no way I could say anything now. I just had to suck it up and go with it. It didn’t help when we got there and they explained the emergency procedure if you were to fall out. It also didn’t help later when our guide said that he had fallen in before. Our guide went over all the rules of the raft and the proper technique for how to row. He stated how important our positioning was in the raft and how vital it was that we all row when he tells us to. That only added to my stress level. Not only did I have to focus on not falling in, I had to follow instructions too? Our raft is next to hit the water and the thought going through my head is just let’s get this over with...
But then we got out onto the water and everything changed. The words of our guide started to sink in. It was important that each and every member of the raft follow instructions or it could spell bad things for the group. The group couldn’t afford for me to sit there and panic. I had to focus. I had a job to do. It wasn’t long after we got out onto the river that we came across our first rapid. It wasn’t big, but it was a rapid nonetheless. Adrenaline kicked in and I rowed as hard as I could to our guide’s beat to get through that rapid. And I loved it. In just that one rapid I felt a complete shift in my attitude. I was no longer sitting there hoping for it to be over. Instead, I was excited for the next one. I felt stupid for thinking earlier how I’d rather be back at the cabin.
There was something about working in unison with everyone else that was really cool. Sometimes our guide would tell one side to row a few extra strokes or to row a little harder. It was so important that we each listen to our instructions or else we might hit a rock. Before we took off that was my biggest fear. Now I was in the zone. No way I’m going to let that happen. Instead of looking at the rapids as an obstacle I began viewing them as a challenge. Obstacles and challenges may be similar, but for me there’s an important distinction. An obstacle is typically something we try to go around or avoid. They’re just in your way. A challenge, however, is something you willingly take on. It’s not as inherently negative, at least in my opinion. It’s more of an opportunity. Each and every rapid we came across was a new challenge.
That’s a mindset that I’ve tried to take with me ever since. I’ll come across situations that are out of my comfort zone. Normally I’d view those situations as obstacles that I try to avoid. But now I’m more aware of the benefits of seeing them as challenges to overcome. Taking on those challenges are chances to grow. Avoiding obstacles provides no chance for growth. Looking back I’m amazed at what happened with my whitewater experience. Despite all of my hesitations and fears, I ended up loving every second and even learned a life lesson from it. That experience serves as a reminder to me that sometimes all you need is a push to try something new, whether that be from family, friends, or even God Himself.
I also want to talk a little more about our guide. In between the rapids the water was usually pretty calm, so it allowed us some time to learn more from our guide. He explained how he ended up as a whitewater rafting guide in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. He was originally from Oklahoma before moving to Tennessee about two years ago. He had a job in the oil industry, so he was making quite a bit of money. But he was miserable. He didn’t enjoy what he was doing and didn’t feel alive (that sounds familiar). A friend of his knew someone that helped hire guides for whitewater rafting on some river in Tennessee and suggested the job to him. Our guide explained that he had never once been whitewater rafting but he decided to pack his bags and move to Tennessee. How crazy is that? He took a job doing something he had never even done before. Talk about courage. He was leaving behind a stable job with a steady income for something completely unknown. And two years later there he was, absolutely loving what he was doing. Sure, he didn’t make a lot of money doing it, but as he explained, what would he need money for if he was already doing what he loved? He, like me before my rafting experience, probably had many doubts and hesitations. What if he hates it? What if he’s just not that good at it? Would he be able to get his old job back if this one doesn’t pan out? He could’ve easily backed out and stayed with what was safe. Searching for a new job could’ve been an obstacle to avoid. Instead, he viewed it as a challenge. And now he feels alive and happy because of it.
In the days following the whitewater rafting I was feeling very alive. I had overcome a fear and was eager to keep that feeling going. Naturally, another opportunity presented itself just a couple days after. I was on a hike with Laura and Kevin when we came across a pool just off the trail. There were a couple big boulders that were perfect for jumping off. We decided to check it out on our way back. When we passed it I had those familiar feelings of doubt and hesitation. Do I really want to jump off a rock? What if I slip and fall? What if the water isn’t deep enough or there are rocks underneath? But then I recalled the experience I had just days before and how I didn’t let those fears stop me. I also remembered a book I’ve read a couple times, Dangerous Wonder. The tagline of that book is Jump First, Fear Later.
So often I fixate on what could go wrong instead of taking a chance and going after something incredible. That’s the case with many different things, not just jumping off boulders. Many times it relates to my career, or going deeper in my faith, or going to new places, or talking to different people. More often than not I play things safe and go with what’s comfortable. I let my fears of not having my feet underneath me, both literally and figuratively, dictate so much of what I do in life. I want to feel alive, but I’m afraid to chase it because there are risks. I fear first and never jump.
As we were walking back to the pool those words were running through my head. Jump first, fear later…Jump first, fear later…Jump first, fear later…I thought that I’d regret not taking advantage of this opportunity. It was a chance to put my fears further behind me. It was something I had to do. And so Kevin and I swam out towards the boulders. It quickly became evident that there was no easy way to climb up to the top. Of course. There was no staircase to just walk up. We had to slowly work our way up in between the boulders, which were wet and slippery. At one point I had to lunge forward to get myself on top of the boulder. One misstep or mistake could have resulted in me falling backwards into the water. I froze momentarily as that thought crept into the back of my mind. But I had made it that far already, and there wasn’t exactly an easy way back down. My only option was to go for it. And I did! And I survived! I can only imagine how funny that entire sequence must have been to a spectator. Because it honestly wasn’t as drastic as I played it up in my mind. But again, for me it meant so much. Instead of playing it safe from the bank I was *diving* across boulders.
So the rest should have been easy, right? Ha, not exactly. Yeah, I had made it onto the top of the boulder. But now I had to jump into the water. I watched Kevin go first and saw that there were in fact no rocks or boulders in the water below. And it was definitely plenty deep enough. But as I stood on the edge looking down my heart started pounding. There’s still something that could go wrong. But again, those words rang through my head…Jump first, fear later. This was a literal opportunity to put those words into action. Jumping in wasn’t an obstacle that I could avoid. It was a challenge. And so I jumped…
I’m happy to sit here today and say that I survived that massive jump. Whenever I go and look back at the video (which I tried to post on here, unsuccessfully) it’s laughable how small the boulder looks. But when I was up there it felt like I was a hundred feet in the air. That’s what made that jump feel so cathartic and freeing. I looked my fear straight in the face and lived to talk about it. That’s a feeling I’ve tried to recall whenever I’m faced with difficult or uncertain situations. In the past I’ve looked at those and turned the other way, electing to stay in my safe little bubble. But now I try to look at those instances as challenges. That’s how I approached my trip to El Salvador. I could have just said no thanks and stayed home. But instead I decided to jump into it and just go for it. How happy I am that I did that.
The experiences I had in Tennessee were huge milestones for me. Honestly. On the surface they may seem minor or simply uneventful. But they were opportunities for me to jump and put my fears to the side. I also think of how our guide truly embodies that message of Jump first, Fear later. He’s an example that I strive to emulate. And that’s the example that I now strive to be for the people in my life.