No, I don’t mean that you have to be crazy to jump out of an airplane. I was sane when I made the decision to jump out of an airplane. That decision was made sanely and soberly on one very normal Wednesday afternoon.
I was sane all the way up to the moment that I stepped out of an airplane at 10,000 feet; it was the very next moment that I lost my mind.
Although I knew what I was getting myself into conceptually, nothing in my life had prepared me for the sensory overload of being 10,000 feet away from anything. Strangely I think the most terrifying thing was not the fear of death, but literally being 10,000 feet away from the nearest object.
I’m not sure why it is reassuring to touch things, but we live our entire life within arm’s reach of something…or at least leg’s reach of something. When walking around our feet are always touching the ground. Even when we are doing extreme things like a high-ropes course, our bodies are attached to a rope that is attached to the tether that is attached to a telephone pole that is attached to the ground. It’s true that folks that walk a high wire or trapeze and happen to fall reach the safety net before their brain can really comprehend what’s happening. My brain had a full moment to comprehend how utterly helpless I was at that situation. Of course somewhere in my intelligence I knew that my parachute ripcord was within arms reach and this was the thing that would bring me safely to earth, but (because I had lost my mind) my brain was screaming too loud in my head about the fact that the only two things that were in my senses were the sky and the ground: the former was only illusory and the latter was two miles away and quickly approaching. For the first time the ground was not a place of safety but a place of incipient death.
…and that was the moment I lost my mind, which is really an apt description having been through it once.
Your mind pulls away from conscious control and starts screaming in my skull as if it’s its own entity.
Lucky (and surrealistically) it was is a bit like having two brains: one screaming inside my skull and the other is fighting for space to do its job.
Because it was my first jump I had an instructor on my back to bring me back in case fear took over. There were still a few things I would need to do in the next few minutes if I was going to land successfully, and I wouldn’t be able to do them in a state of panic: keep my body position in “potato chip” pose to keep us steady in the air, pull the chute, and then find the chute handles that would allow me to steer us to the ground safely.
It took every iota of force of will from my conscious brain to force my instinctive mind into a conversation:
Brain One: AAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!
Brain Two: Look. I understand that you’re freaked out. We’re hurtling through the air towards the ground which is coming at us quite fast.
Brain Two: AAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaaaaggggggggggghghhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!
Brain Two: Yes, you’re scared…I’m not going to ask you not to be scared. It’s normal to be scared. You can continue to freak out, but can you tone it down a bit because there are a couple of things I need to do?
Brain One: AAAAAAAaaaaaaaarrrrrrrraaaaaaahhhhhhh….oh, what? AAAAAAaaaaaaaarrrrrrrraaaaaaahhhhhhhh!!!!!!! Wait…what did you say? Aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!! Sounds important. AAAAAaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!
Brain Two: I said that I know you’re scared, but we can handle this. It’s okay to be scared, I understand why. Would you mind terribly letting me have a little room in the skull to do some business. You can go over there and scream quietly in the corner.
(At this point Brain One feels a tapping in my head from my instructor which means we have already fallen one mile towards the planet’s surface. We were now falling faster than a mile a minute, so it was time for some action. Brain Two feels none of this because it is gripped with panic; it couldn’t save my life now if my life depended on it.)
Brain Two: What do you say, buddy? Can we work together? You go over there and be scared, and I’ll stay here and handle the situation.
Brain One: AAAAA….oh, over here? AAAAAAAAAhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!! Oh, yeah….I can do that. AAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaaggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!! OMGOMGOMG!!!
Brain Two: Thanks. Oh, okay…now I can work. Here’s are the chute handles, here’s how to steer, and there goes the chute. Yes I can get us to the ground safely.
Brain One: OMGOMGOMG!!! Wait…we’re going to be okay?
Brain Two: Yeah. The chutes open. We’re fine now.
Brain One: Oh, thanks…sorry I was so scared.
Brain Two: That’s okay. We were able to work together.
Brain One: I think I wet myself.
Brain Two: I hope not, but we can check once we land.
Once I was able to identify my fear rationally, I was able to function in a way that allowed me to safely reach the ground. Bad things happen if you don’t do this…even with an instructor on your back. My instructor told me the story of one woman who was so freaked out she reached up and grabbed his arms. Sure it made her feel better to hold onto something, but much like the drowning victim who grabs the lifeguard and tries to climb on top of him, the thing that makes you feel better in the face of fear is not the thing that will lead to a healthy outcome.
So…here’s my advice to everyone in 2011: jump out of an airplane. Experience the sensation of losing your minds to fear, so that you can learn the sensation of being able to function in the face of fear.
This country is getting into the very dangerous habit of overreacting to fear and running around screaming with their hands, protest signs, or guns in the air which may make us feel better, but is it the most healthy way for us to behave?
Instead it would be really good to be able to go through the following thought processes in the face of extreme fear:
“There is a mosque moving in my neighborhood, and all the terrorists I know of are Muslim. This is a scary situation for me, and it’s okay to be scared…but…let me think. Seriously, I need to tone down the fear a bit so I can consider whether or not the actual building poses a threat…okay, no…it doesn’t; buildings themselves aren’t dangerous. Terrorism is dangerous. Thinking about it rationally, not all Muslims are terrorists and there Caucasians that are. So how do I figure out if these specific people are terrorists or not?”
“Our country just made a big step to a scary federal medical plan, and socialist governments are scary!!! Okay, it’s okay to be scared…but…while I’m afraid, let me think about what’s really scary. What scares me is that handing power over to an already powerful government which could potentially lead to a totalitarian regime. Good. Now that I’ve named that fear, I can send it to freak out in the corner so that I can think rationally about this situation. What other governments do I know that adopted socialized medicine? Let me do a little bit of research to see how it has affected them.”
“I’m having a baby! I know this is scary, and that’s okay…but let me put my fear on the back burner so I can think rationally about this.”
“My favorite political pundit it telling me to be scared and now I am! Okay, let me turn down the volume on him for a bit to think about what he is telling me.”
Basically this country needs a big shot of, “I know this is scary and that’s okay, but I can still deal with this situation rationally.”
…and jumping out of an airplane is a good way to force yourself to do that.