By Jan K.
I’ve been afraid of heights my whole life. My earliest memory of this dates back to third grade. My school’s third through sixth grade classrooms were on the second floor of an 1890’s era building in the Midwest, with a basement that rose several feet above ground level.
For an eight-year-old, those two-and-a-half stories seemed as high as the Empire State Building. Fire drills were done on a regular basis. The fire drill route from this classroom was out a window and down the two and a half floors on a wrought iron fire escape on the outside of the building.
I still remember the terror I felt at the anticipation of taking that first step out onto the fire escape. I tried as hard as I could to not look down through the iron bars, but the fear of falling down the stairs forced me to look. My legs shook the entire way down, and by the time I reached the bottom, I could barely stand. Even worse was the climb back up when the fire drill was over. I was too shy to admit to anyone how afraid I was, so I suffered in silence, dreading the next drill. How happy I was when I graduated to the seventh grade and a classroom on the first floor.
Fast forward several years. I’m a big history buff, and have always been interested in the Aztec, Inca and Maya cultures. While reading an article about the pyramids in Teotihuacán, Mexico, I told myself that if I ever went there, I would climb one of those pyramids, no matter how high it was. My opportunity came a few years later when a friend organized a group tour to Mexico, and Teotihuacán was on the itinerary.
Finally there, I surveyed Teotihuacán, wondering which of the two large pyramids I would climb. I determined that if I were going to go through the combination of agony and exhilaration of climbing one, it would be the tallest – the Pyramid of the Sun – at over 200 feet, the third largest pyramid in the world.
As I began the ascent, I thought back to that fire escape, my shaky legs and the internal torment I was sure to go through. Would I really be able to do it?
The Pyramid of the Sun is built in levels. At each level on the way up, I stopped to catch my breath, renew my energy and stamina, and encourage myself to go on. Each step up made my already-shaky legs even weaker. I found if I only looked up, I could make it from level to level with the least amount of agony.
When I finally stepped onto the top ledge, I felt a rare sense of accomplishment. I walked around the top of the pyramid, taking in the view, and recording the moment with my camera. I had really done it – climbed one of the tallest pyramids in the world and lived to tell about it. Even though I’d felt the fear in every step, I had wanted to do it badly enough that I continued anyway, no matter what.
That experience convinced me that fear will only keep you from doing things you don’t want to do badly enough to overcome the fear. In other words, if you find a reason to avoid doing something because you’re afraid, you don’t want to do it badly enough to work through the fear and do it anyway.
Tackling something so full of emotion is difficult to do all at once. Scaling a pyramid seems a daunting task when it’s viewed from the ground. Climbing it was easier when done level by level, one step at a time, with time to rest and reflect.
I learned to always look up. Never look down. The future is ahead, and looking back only makes you want to retreat to the comfort zone that kept you imprisoned for so long. It’s all right to be afraid. It makes the accomplishment that much sweeter. And if you slip, regain your footing and keep going.