I spent that morning, thirty years ago, in training, learning how to jump out of an airplane. I took off my prosthetic leg and jumped from a three foot platform and practiced rolling upon landing. My mouth was dry as we boarded the plane. My breath became shallow as we ascended to 3,000 feet. When my turn came, I looked at my boyfriend and could see my fears reflected back at me. But we were in this 100% so, without another thought, I scooted over to the edge of the plane and followed my instructor’s directions to a T. I reached outside the plane and grabbed onto a bar that connected the wing to the plane. I inched to the edge of the plane and placed my foot on a lower bar. When the instructor counted to three, I released my vice grip and stretched my arms wide. My eyes were half shut from the speed and the wind whistled in my ears. I forget how high I had to count, but once I got to that number, I reached up and pulled the cord. My parachute escaped in a flurry and opened up like a swimming jelly fish. I was the lone tentacle. My world suddenly became quiet. And peaceful. The view was breathtaking.
Jumping out of a plane, while exhilarating and terrifying, required focus, determination and a dose of pride (after all, I couldn’t tell people I chickened out!).
Because I did activities like this in my early years as an amputee, many people told me how courageous I was, but I didn’t believe them. I understood that I appeared courageous, but on the inside I held a deep, dark secret: I was terrified. I was afraid that I would get in another car accident. I was scared I would appear foolish when I tried to do things with my challenged body. I was frightened that I wouldn’t be successful at anything I did. In my naiveté, I thought that being brave meant that I couldn’t be afraid.
In my quiet moments, I sat with my fears. Small, constricted, safe, and known. That’s what fear looked like. Stay right here, right where you are, don’t let anything change, don’t try anything new and everything will be okay. That’s what fear sounded like.
Courage was a choice inspired by my fears.
If I knew anything about living with my amputation, it was that I had to make something of it. If I wallowed in my fear, anger or sadness, I ran the risk of being consumed by the wallowing itself. I was too young for that. So, I looked fear in the face and then I turned my back.
But fear was always there. Sometimes fear screamed at me, like an irrational toddler demanding to be picked up. Sometimes fear growled at me, like a menacing dog. Sometimes fear whimpered like a doe-eyed puppy and I always looked back. But I saw fear for what it was: an illusion.
Fear actually propelled me toward my courage. Like the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, I was filled with self-doubt. I didn’t think I had courage, but in the process of looking for it, I found I had it in me all along.
The choice to walk through my daily fears was a far more courageous act than jumping out of that plane.
Courage required patience.
I could have given up and surrendered to the anger I felt at my limited body, the impatience I felt at my physical slowness, and the rage I felt at the man who hit me. Though I did feel all those things, I just couldn’t give up on myself. I figured enough people in the world would give up on me or be inpatient with me. I couldn’t be one of them. I knew that I had to cheer myself on and cut myself a break.
My rehabilitation in the hospital served as a great metaphor for how I lived my life when I was released: know where you’re going, take it one step at a time, and breathe.
Taking life step-by-step requires both forethought and staying present. I always had to know what my end-goal was, but I had to stay focused on the step right in front of me. I learned early and quickly to have always have the end in sight. If I didn’t, if I only focus on the easiest way to take the next step, I often ended up in the wrong place.
This required patience. Not the waiting kind of patience, but the kind of patience that comes from taking small steps toward a larger goal with faith that the end will come. Knowing I’m in it for the long haul. Without patience, I would have lost my courage.
Courage becomes a habit
What I’ve come to realize is that courage does not need to be grandiose, like jumping out of an airplane. Bravery does not need to be flashy, like rappelling down a rock face. In fact, living courageously is a lifestyle. I’m reminded of the parable of two young fish who swim by an older, wiser fish. The elder fish says, “Hey guys, how’s the water?” After the elder fish swims on, the two younger fish look at each other and say, “What’s water?” This is what courage is to me now, a part of who I am, part of the air that I breathe. Courage sustains and feeds me, inspires and motivates me.
What about you? What quality in your life is so ingrained in you that you hardly give yourself credit for having it? How can you more fully own that part of you? Or are you like the Cowardly Lion, searching for something that already lies within?