My white-chalked hands grasp the trapeze bar, toes curled over the edge of the platform 22 feet above the floor. My gaze is fixed straight ahead, looking anywhere but down.
I’m acutely aware that the only thing keeping me from tumbling face-first into the net below is Yale, my instructor here on the platform at Twin Cities Trapeze Center. He’s ready to review the commands — listo, to tell the team I’m set to jump; ready, to tell me I’m ready; and hep, to signal “Go!”
There’s nothing to worry about, my brain says. My harness is clipped to the pulley system that will keep me safe as I fly through the air with the greatest of ease.
There’s everything to worry about, responds my body.
“I’m scared,” I confess. Yale laughs. “You’ve done this. And we’ve got you,” he reassures me, yanking the harness to confirm the clip. “Just do what I say.”
In the three years since beginning my sporadic trapeze practice, I’ve learned that there are many frightening moments: booking the session, the car ride to the circus school, the climb up the 22-rung ladder, the anxious anticipation leading up to the flight.
The funny thing is that the heart-stoppingest moments are all the ones leading up to the jump.
My fear is irrational: There is no good reason for it, because all the reasons for being scared — plummeting to one’s death chief among them — have been taken care of. There are multiple safety precautions in place. I won’t die. I won’t get hurt. I won’t be embarrassed. My most basic desire for survival is assured.
Moreover, trapeze is not new to me. I’ve done this before. I know I like it.
So why be scared?
In a primal sense, these rationalizations can’t touch my instinct. What I mean is, the outcome isn’t what’s scary. I’m not thinking, I’m scared I’m going to die. I’m only feeling. Each moment in the moment produces a fear that passes once one moment is safely passed and the next is presented. It might not be rational, but it’s real.
“Listo!” Yale calls out, and I know it’s time. I feel the fear reach a peak.
“Ready,” comes the response. The subtext is there: “Ready or not. We’ve got you.” I lean forward, adjust my grip, bend my knees, and unfurl my toes. I’m scared and I’m ready.
“Hep!” Without hesitation, I jump as hard as I can. Once I’m off the platform, the fear evaporates, as though it had never been there.
I listen for more commands and move through some basic trapeze skills: a powerful swing, a knee hang, a back flip, and finally a catch. I hold on when I have to and let go when it’s time. Just as I know I can’t stand on the platform forever, I can’t keep holding the trapeze bar either.
Facing the fear of trapeze, I’ve come to learn, is much like facing other fears, taking other risks, wading through the discomforts of life, big and small.
Even if I’m scared, I can jump.
Even if I’m scared, I can let myself fall.
At each turn I’m reminded I’ve got this, and people I trust have got my back.
If you’re wondering how this could possibly be fun, just look at the smile on my face as I bounce onto the net after it’s through. Flying is absolutely fun. I get to know this only because being scared isn’t a good enough reason not to try.
This originally appeared as “Strong Body, Strong Mind: Fear of Flying” in the September 2018 print issue of Experience Life.