My feet dangled above tiny squares of brown and green. Fields and forests had shrunk to miniatures by the 8,000 feet of empty air below me. It almost didn’t look real. Was I actually going to do this, jump out of an airplane?
In the classic surf flick Point Break, Bodhi philosophizes, “Fear causes hesitation, and hesitation will cause your worst fears to come true.” I was fearful but there was no time to hesitate – suddenly I was falling, pushed out the airplane door by a skydiving instructor harnessed to my back. Glimpses of earth and sky alternated rapidly as we tumbled. I screamed. With my head tilted up and legs arced into a scorpion pose as instructed, Addie soon righted us in the proper position with our bellies toward the ground. My scream ran out of breath and I became lost in the magic of free falling for the first time.
She said we’d get a few more seconds of freefall because together we weighed less than the other tandem skydivers, , but the purported twenty-three seconds passed in a blink. Once Addie pulled the ripcord on the parachute, our speed slowed dramatically. Fast falling became a gentle drift downward, and I had time to take in the expansive view. In the distance, the ocean glinted in the midday sun. Low mountains interrupted the checkerboard pattern of fields below.
“Would you like to steer?” Addie asked. I took hold of the guidelines, her gloved hand over mine, and we turned the parachute in slow spirals. The feeling of unreality hadn’t left me, but was buoyed by exuberance.
I was doing this!
Although we were the second pair to jump, we were still making lazy circles in the sky after the others all landed, again due to our lower weight. A dry tan field steadily grew larger on approach, until at last I raised my legs on Addie’s instruction, sliding on my butt across burr-studded grasses to an assisted stop.
“That was awesome!” I told her, grinning. The harness bit into my legs when I stood and Addie deftly loosened it. I couldn’t wait to go again. Next time from 15,000 feet!
There are many people who would never dream of jumping from a perfectly good airplane, just as there are others who would not think of trying to surf. “Aren’t you afraid of sharks?” I’ve been asked many times. For some, the fact that those apex predators live in the ocean is enough to keep their feet firmly planted on the sand, despite the low risk of ever encountering one of the Men in Gray Suits. Those who join the ranks of surfers and skydivers share common characteristics that set them apart from the more cautious folks.
Sensation-seeking is the purview of such adventurous people, many craving another hit of the feel-good neurochemical dopamine which is released as a reward during pleasurable activities tinged with risk. This may be coupled with a desire to challenge fear. At times on the water, in the face of waves that scared me with their height, power or heaviness, I’ve recited parts of the Litany Against Fear from Dune by Frank Herbert:
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
It is this ability to face fear, to stand up to it and let it pass, that sets adventure-seekers like surfers apart from those more comfortable sitting on the sofa with a beer and watching TV. It’s why, although the thought of falling from a plane terrified me, I pushed myself to do it anyway.
Before the skydive, I’d taken steps to reduce my fear. As Jaimal Yogis writes in The Fear Project: What Our Most Primal Emotion Taught Me About Survival, Success, Surfing … And Love, “often, fear is overcome through action: sports, meditation, music, love, repetitive training, positive exposure to the object of fear, and simply using common sense to investigate what’s so scary.” I’d latched onto that last point, learning what to expect during and after free fall and studying just enough about the safety of skydiving to satisfy my logical mind. I’ve also dabbled in rock climbing over the years, gradually building up a little tolerance for lower heights.
Although I’d brought my boyfriend along for support, I was surprised to learn that love may have played a role in overcoming my fear. “They say love makes cowards brave.” Shakespeare knew it in 1603 when he wrote Othello, but now science has proved it. Yogis notes, “there is some biological proof now that love really does conquer fear… Falling in love, making love, making babies, giving birth, breastfeeding, hugging, even just thinking of loved ones – all that sentimental stuff releases a hormone in us called oxytocin,” and “now scientists have shown that oxytocin – sort of like love in chemical form – is what helps mammals be brave.”
In retrospect, maybe it’s not so surprising after all, given all the stories about people rushing into burning buildings to rescue loved ones.
With wind rushing by the open jump door, I held Brad’s hand and he gave me a reassuring smile which I tried my best to return. I felt my fear lessen. It was still there, but more tolerable. After he left the plane, I wanted nothing more than to reunite with him safely on the ground. And the best way was to push through the fear and out the door after him. Love made me brave enough to do it.
Humans are born with two innate fears: the fear of loud noises and the fear of falling. So while my legs dangled outside the airplane door at 8,000 feet, my gut shrieked “Danger!” and readied my body for fight-or-flight by triggering the release of neurochemicals like adrenaline and norepinephrine. My brain, buoyed by oxytocin and dopamine, fought to dismiss my gut’s overblown alarm calls. I’m not sure how long I would’ve sat on that edge while gut and brain argued, but ultimately it was Addie who made the choice by pushing us into out the air. And I will never forget the scary awesome rush of those moments.