Friday, September 14, 2012

Conquering Heights 

I have spent a lot of time and energy the past 20 years trying to avoid pain and discomfort.  Prior to that, it had dawned on me (sometime in my late teens and early twenties) that if I were going to live a life worth breathing about, I was going to have to confront and "lean into" some uncomfortable stuff.  So when an old friend of mine invited me to the top of the World Trade Center one Sunday morning in late April of 1986, I just couldn't decline.   Let me preface the rest of this by saying I am terrified of heights.  I have a sort of mix of agoraphobia and acrophobia. I more hate the feeling of exposure and openness than of the actual height.  In fact, happily ensconced in an airplane seat, I could stare out at the world below me for hours on end.

But that fateful morning 26 and half years ago, I was a wide-eyed college junior staying on the East River in a swank pied-à-terre with some very lovely and interesting people.  The last thing I wanted to do was come back to the apartment and tell everybody what a p***y I was.

We got in the cab and off we went.  We arrived at the now infamous Gothic revival pointed metal arches and breezed in past the door men.  I don't remember getting on the elevator as much as I remember my ears popping incessantly on the very long ride up.

We arrived at the observation deck and I walked outside without pausing to think about how frightened I was.  Because, in my memory,  I was less frightened than excited to be confronting a fear.  I was actually more excited to kick my own ass about something than about being on top of the world.  Odd, but there it is.

I even went to the edge of the railing, which was actually a concentric square (can you say that?) that was maybe 15-20 feet from the actual edge.  I looked over the entirety of Manhattan and frankly half of New Jersey because it seemed like I could see forever.  It was such a crisp, clear and calm morning.  And there I was up there with the angels--scared shitless and doing it anyway.

Pride was the driving factor, for sure.  Or maybe I should say impetus.  But for some reason it wasn't the actual chutzpa that got me out there.  That was this internal dialogue that sounded something like, "hey, let's just give this a try. What could it hurt? I hear you're scared. Don't think. You can do this. Other people do this all the time. This is fun. This is what life is all about. I'm here with you. You can do this but you don't have to if it's too much, etc."

The internal dialogue was incredibly healthy.  My instincts were good at 21.

But then, shortly after this mighty triumph, the personal losses started to pile up as real life started happening.  And with loss comes the feeling that life is messy.  At 21, I erroneously thought that there was an incorruptible causal relationship between effort and outcome.  A direct unaffected relationship between "being good" and "enjoying a good life." And, you know what, it just doesn't work like that because shit happens--even when we're "good."  Not so incidentally,  the two big byproducts of my grief were anger and resentment. 

Instead of leaning into the anger and resentment, feeling them and then letting them go, I made suits out of them and wore them around like battle armor.   In so doing, I cut off not only my connections with others but also that sweet, compassionate, empathic, encouraging voice inside that coaxed me out to the edge and quietly celebrated my internal triumph with me.   That voice was the voice of vulnerability-embraced, not dominated.  But that vulnerability got mixed up with pain and that sweet voice--well she was largely silent for long stretches of the interim years.  

But I'm learning through the book Daring Greatly by Brene Brown that vulnerability is the soul of connection.  At the top of the list of connectees is ourselves. I can't give with an open heart until I receive with an open heart.  Open means vulnerable.  I might get hurt.  No need to gun-up or put on a flack jacket.   Just be with it.  I'll most likely survive.

I read recently in a book called The Biology of Belief that an organism (the scientist was talking about cellular biology) cannot simultaneously fight off multiple attackers, grow and reproduce.  There are simply not enough cellular resources to do all of those things.  If attacked, all it can do is defend.  There are obvious parallels between my own personal struggles with embracing vulnerability and our world's struggles with it.

Apparently they exist on a cellular level, as well.  That should tell us something.

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