I have a confession to make. I am not afraid of heights. For about 25 years I have been telling people that I am afraid of heights to get out of certain activities. Specifically, to get out of activities that involve heights and which could result in me plunging to my death. But heights – nope. That is not the problem. The problem is the potential plunging.
My fear is not unfounded or irrational. Years ago while on a trip to Colorado, I was climbing with some friends. There was a short section of a narrow pathway where we were moving from one section of the climb to another. I do not remember exactly what happened next, but somehow I slipped. What I do remember is that suddenly I was sliding, quickly approaching a cliff, a sheer drop and a rapidly rushing river. The next few seconds are burned into my memory. Time slowed. I heard my friends yelling for me. I saw the river below. And then…I stopped. I just stopped. My foot hit a small rock, just a couple of inches out of the ground. Somehow, as I was staring my demise in the face, my foot hit a tiny rock and my life would continue. I was in shock. I was grateful to be alive. And I was terrified.
That day marked the last time I would climb. It was the last time I would do anything that required me to put my safety into the hands of another. It was the last time I would trust that no matter what, I would be okay. It was the day I stopped taking risks. People who know me well know that I really like to be in control of – well – of everything. The problem with that is that it is impossible to be in control of everything.
When my wife got really sick last year, I recognized just how little control I have in my life. And through that experience, and the year since, I have come to understand that the best parts of life happen outside the box of our control. They happen when we learn to appreciate the fragility of life, and the people we love.
Friday was a Professional Learning day for the Thames Valley District School Board. At my school, we are working on the Global Competency of Learning to Learn. Through our work, we are striving to understand how we and our students give and receive meaningful feedback, how we use that feedback to gain a better understanding of what we need to learn, and how we determine our next best learning move. As a way of engaging in some experiential learning, I joined my staff at Boler Mountain to take part in the Treetop Adventure. This event brought our team together, gave us insight into how we ask for help and support one another, and how we learn and make our next best learning moves.
The treetop adventure takes place up in the trees, as the name implies. It requires one to harness up, walk across ropes and wires and bridges and to fly on ziplines. When I put “complete a ropes course” and “zipline” on my list of 45 things, I wasn’t sure if I would ever actually go through with it. No matter how many people told me it was safe, who reminded me that I was harnessed in, or that I needed to trust myself and others, I just couldn’t get the image of sliding toward the steep cliff and river out of my mind.
So the day arrived. Friday we showed up at Boler Mountain and after a morning of working together learning how to support students with medical conditions, having conversations about what Learning to Learn looks like in our classrooms, and engaging in some team building activities, we were ready to get into the trees. My hands were shaking as I got into the harness. As the principal, I felt like I needed to be fearless – and I wasn’t. But I was courageous. Courage – the ability to feel fear and do the thing anyway.
I am so glad I faced my fear. I am so glad I was courageous. And I would not have been able to do it without the encouragement of the people I was with – my colleagues and friends who cheered me on, who used what they had learned to give me feedback and who I truly believe had my back. Overcoming this fear makes me wonder if I need to let go in other areas of my life. Maybe the real magic of life lies in living just outside of our comfort zone. My comfort zone has served me for a lot of years. It has kept me safe. It has let me feel more in control. But it has also acted like a prison, keeping me from taking risks and engaging in all the wonderful adventures life has to offer.
And while it isn’t on my list of 45 things, I think I may make a stop at a climbing gym in the near future.
Where have you allowed fear to keep you from living? What adventures are you missing out on? What conversations are you not having that could change everything? This project has reminded me that every day is a wonderful gift and gifts are meant to be opened and enjoyed!