I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear. ~ Nelson Mandela
“Should we jump off it?”
I looked at my sister, Becca. I was astonished she had even asked. There could be only one answer.
“Of course we should jump off it.”
“You all are crazy.” That exasperated utterance was courtesy of our cousin, Sam. The three of us were standing on the shores of Lake Powell in Arizona. It’s a desert country. The contrast between the wild, barren, dry landscape and the azure, crystalline water of Lake Powell is both stark and magnificent. The lake was edged by red-and-white cliffs stretching up to an achingly blue sky. We had come to swim, but it was the cliffs that held our attention. At least, they held Becca and I’s attention. They were what we were going to jump off; much to the vexed Sam’s dismay.
We were in our very foolish teens then. I was sixteen and Becca was fourteen – almost fifteen. Sam was a little older, and much wiser, at seventeen. We were on a road trip with our Aunt Carol and cousin, driving from California to Colorado. Arizona was a pit stop.
Our minds made up, we headed to the water’s edge, a reluctant Sam in tow. In what my sister and I considered, at the time, to be a remarkable show of caution, we swam first to the area under the highest point of the cliffs. Then we dove to check water depth – it was deep. We weren’t going to hit anything when we jumped. Safety duly noted, we began our trek up the side of the cliffs. Sam, prudently, remained below. Our family debates over the actual height of the cliffs we climbed that day; personally, I am a terrible gauge of height (I cannot be trusted to buy a Christmas tree that fits into the house), but general opinion places the cliffs between 70 and 75 feet.
It felt a lot higher standing at the top. A college boy had made the trek to the top with us. However, faced with the yawning chasm of air stretching between cliff top and lake – the air we must fly through before water could halt our flight – he had a change of heart. I nearly joined him. At the top, the wind swept over us in hot dusty gasps; tugging at our arms and legs, and drying the sudden nervous sheen of sweat on our brows. We stood there a moment, Becca and I. Our bathing suits drying in the sun. The moment became two, then three. We said nothing, and I began to think we would go back. We would climb down the sides of the cliffs, embrace sanity, and fly a different day. Sam would be pleased. Then Becca’s feet began to move. She propelled herself to the cliff’s edge and launched into flight. Her body hurtling for an eternity before vanishing under the water. Moments later, she emerged. There was no decision now: If she did it I must as well. My feet began to move. The edge of the cliff loomed large before me, it passed, and my own flight began.
My sister and I have always been best friends. She is my favorite adventure buddy. The Lake Powell episode was not one of our brighter moments, and I feel compelled to point out, lest anyone attempt to emulate us, such cliff jumps are now (very wisely) illegal; but you see, she was my inspiration. If she could do it, so could I. We are older now, and somewhat wiser. We do not typically jump off cliffs anymore, at least not big ones, but she continues to be an inspiration to me. I could easily wax poetic about any number of her qualities. I could write about her compassion for others, her patience, her remarkable calmness in the face of upset, her joie-de-vivre, her beautiful singing voice, her hobbies (she spins fire!), her optimism, or the amazing way she is raising her daughter. However, I choose to write about her bravery.
My sister is fearless. She faces life with unflinching courage. In the last fifteen years, she has moved, with a small child in tow, to a city where she knew no one, and she made a life for herself there. The first career she pursued there ultimately fell through. I struggle to comprehend how frightening it must have been to see years of work turn to dust in her hands. The fear could have only been compounded by having another human being dependent on her, but she did not give up. She picked herself up and found another career. This one stuck; more than stuck, she flourished within it. In time, when her mentor retired, she was able to buy the business she started over in, and it has grown by leaps and bounds.
Her fearlessness, at least partially, stems from hard experience. Becca got pregnant young. She had my niece, Leah when she was sixteen. My sister immediately loved Leah
with a consuming passion. For Leah, she was determined to make the best life hard work could make possible. Becca learned, very quickly, being a young, unwed mother came with piles of censure. Most of the censure she received had very little to do with the reality of her life. Those who expressed it did not see the hard work she was putting in to support her daughter, the education she was pursuing, or her own values; instead, they saw she was a single Mom and silently, and not so silently, judged her. So, Becca learned, the hard way, that you cannot live your life based on the opinions of others.
It was a hard lesson, but learning it early and through such brutal means, was ultimately a good experience. Now, she does not care about what other people think about her. It is not that she doesn’t respect the opinions of others. She does. She actively seeks out mentors and new sources of knowledge. She listens when people she respects offer her their opinion on a matter. However, she is confident in herself. If she makes a decision, after careful consideration, and then someone in her life condemns it she acknowledges their dissent, and then she moves on. As a result, she lives a life completely formed by her own convictions. And it is a free one.
It is this aspect of her fearlessness that I admire above all else. You see, I still struggle with that. I would love to say I don’t care what other people think about me, but I do. I am proud to say it is an area of my life where I have grown. What other people think of me does not have the impact on my life that it did five years ago, a year ago, or even a month ago. However, it is not something I am completely free of. My sister’s fearlessness allows her to walk into any new environment and make herself at home. She is completely herself, and people are drawn to that freedom and openness in her. Someday, I hope to be able to completely emulate her in this. It won’t be the same for me. I don’t know if people will ever be drawn to me in the same way, and that’s fine. I’m not Becca, but I hope and believe the freedom will be the same – the freedom to live a life formed completely by my own convictions with fear playing no part. In this, I want to be just like Becca.
© Julie Wright 2018