I have a confession. I have a terrible fear of heights.
For years, it kept me on the sidelines, watching while others attempted things that I would have loved to do but wouldn't dare. Rock climb, high dive, bungee jump. It's not for me, I would think. I'm just too scared.
Fear, I thought, should be honored. After all, why would you want to subject yourself to its pain -- the discomfort of a racing heart, the weak knees and shaky hands, a brain so wired it feels like it's caught fire.
And then one day I saw her.
I was at an art festival in Washington D.C., and one of the acts was a woman performing acrobatics on a silk curtain hanging 20 feet off the ground. With no harness or lines, she manipulated through space in a beautiful dance. It was athletic and technically complex. But more than that, it was a duet of human and fabric, a story told in the air.
I declared under my breath that one day, I would try that too. Maybe not now, but someday -- just to feel it for a moment.
Six years later, I finally did try aerial silks. My husband gave me a gift certificate to a nearby circus studio. I had $200 to spend and no more excuses. My "maybe someday" had turned into now.
That first day was both exhilarating and awful. I had finally made it there, after all. But I couldn't climb past a few feet, my arms became enflamed with fatigue, and when I looked to the top of the ceiling -- where the other aerialists were dangling -- I felt sick. I thought there was no way I would ever get there.
It didn't matter, though, because I was hooked. What I envisioned would be a one-time event became a regular activity. I practiced multiple times per week and expanded from the silks to the trapeze and other aerial apparatuses. But every time I began to rise from the ground, I could hear my fear whisper, "Don't do it, Amanda. Stay down here safely on the ground with me."
I remember looking at how calm the pros were as they dangled from the rafters in a silk cocoon. I wanted to be like that. I wanted to feel that peace, and I thought that if I worked hard enough, that if I spent enough hours in the studio, my fear would disappear.
But here's the truth -- it didn't.
I've been doing aerial for years now and heck, have even started teaching it. The fear is still there. I hear its ugly little voice reminding me that if I wrap wrong or lose my grip, I will fall. That if I don't hold my position, I will fall. And if I fall, the damage may be irreparable.
People often ask me why I continue with something that scares me. Is it masochism? Do I have some unresolved childhood issue in need of immediate attention?
No. It's nothing like that. I just don't want my life dictated by fear.
I may not be able to "crush the fear" as stories of heroes always promise, but I can find its weak points. I can move until I locate its blind spot.
Here's what I've figured out -- that practicing with more experienced aerialists helps dampen my fear, that performing distracts me from it, and that the swell of lyrical music can be like a wave crashing over it. Most importantly, I've learned to acknowledge my fear, respect its presence and let it go.
And, oh, how I've benefitted. I've experienced things I would never have otherwise. I've thrown myself out of an airplane, stared down a double black diamond ski slope, and parasailed so high that I could almost feel the clouds at my fingertips. Like the woman I saw so many years ago at that festival, I've felt the joy of dancing in the air.
If I had never taken that first step toward my fear or had bowed down to it, so much of what is now my life would never have come to be. It would have cost me experiences, relationships, and the emotions that only exist on the other side of a challenge.
Similar to so much else in life, we can't control fear. But we can choose our response to it, and that is what has made all the difference.