On fear, fist pumps and freedom

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“Stretch your legs out in front of you,” the instructor said, as I hung suspended by a pulley, ready for my first zip lining experience. The rope I clung to for dear life connected one mountain to another across the gorgeous green valley of Cherrapunjee. I had decided to do this after agreeing to the the driver’s mysterious question,” Madam, aapko slide pe jana hai?” and his insistence that the experience was “badiya”. Looking at the steep drop below me, I realised this was quite a daft idea. I lunged backwards, placed my feet on the platform and announced that I was not going to go ahead. “Are you sure?” the instructor asked. I looked at him uncertainly. “No,” I said. That’s me — I have a mind that’s always in two. I sat back down again and scrutinized the rope for any telltale signs that it might be coming apart.

“Ready?” I heard a voice say. “No!” I shook my head vehemently. But the next thing I knew, I was whizzing through the valley, legs dangling, my heart in my mouth, my mind completely blank. I came to a stop a few metres before the end – my tight grip on the rope had stalled my momentum. I opened my eyes in wonder as I swung gently over the valley and, suddenly in that moment, I felt like Tarzan. This was me, hanging from a rope in the middle of the Himalayas, completely intact. I’d made it! I was too chicken to take the line back, but resolved to come back the next day to fix my reputation. I climbed back up onto the road, on wobbly knees, beaming. The ride was only 15 seconds, but in those 15 seconds I had got all the fame I wanted – I was my own hero.

zip lining

My mother told me that as a kid, I didn’t jump around much for fear of falling. I grew up mostly buried in music, books and art. I was always shy. I quit playing tennis after I was asked (horror of horrors!) to play a tournament. I would gaze fervently at my desk when a teacher threatened to pick any student to answer a question, hoping it wouldn’t be me. I found myself most at home when I had my face in a book or I was at a piano. I only did things that I wanted to do, that I was comfortable with. And for the longest time, I thought that was who I was.

When I went to college, I took up a range of activities that I never thought I would. I climbed hills, albeit clumsily so. I fell, I got up, I tested each step till I was confident I could skip up like a sure-footed goat (well, not really). I found myself paragliding over Manali, screaming hysterically (I’m flying, I’m flying!) in response to which the alarmed instructor hurriedly landed me on the ground. I waded among waterfalls, learning to avoid the moss and find firm footholds. I walked, amidst mountains, on shaky rope bridges that swayed threateningly from side to side with every step. On one instance, I was looking down from a half-rusted iron bridge at swirling turquoise waters below me, inching along carefully, each step sending chills up my spine.  As I drowned in shiny-eyed ecstasy, another traveller casually walked past me, seemingly impatient, oblivious to the breathtaking surroundings. I looked at him half-sympathetically – I was clearly getting more out of this experience than him. Perhaps he’d already had his moment. Or maybe his kick lay in bungee jumping off cliffs?

Adventure means something different to all of us. But all adventure involves getting out of your comfort zone. I’ve realised that when you do something you’re afraid to, you appreciate it a whole lot more than someone who’s unafraid of the same thing. And that applies to fears of all kinds, shapes and sizes. Fear of the dark. Fear of spiders. Fear of crowds (try participating in a flash mob?:)). Fear of taking a chance. Fear of letting your guard down. Fear of breaking up. Fear of heights. Fear of change (ah, how well we all know this one!). Overcoming these fears is adventure, and in that perhaps lies a huge part of the thrill.

When you push your boundaries, be it physical, mental or emotional, you set yourself up for challenges. And when we are faced with challenge, we humans are simply wired to be up for the fight.

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For the longest time, I worked unwillingly in a full-time job, itching to quit and do something on my own. When I finally took the plunge a few months ago, I felt like I was reborn again. What an overwhelming release washed over me! A whole new set of windows, doors and entire drawbridges opened up. Public speaking was something else I thought I could never do. Yet, I had to speak at various events in the last couple of years, only to forget what I had to say each time, but somehow finding my way through it. How affirming it is, this incredible “I pulled it off!” feeling. Victory is indeed sweet, more so when you defeat yourself.

I think what I’ve learnt is that your greatest fears have the power to set you free. After having been commitment-phobic for most part of my twenties, I went ahead and made a huge commitment this year. And here’s the irony – I feel like I’ve broken chains. I broke the chains that held me back. If anything, I feel stronger, bolder and literally regal. I feel invincible.

It’s true what they say about breaking comfort zones. You discover what you’re capable of, and more often than not, it surprises you.

Over the years, my definition of freedom has evolved. It no longer only means being able to do what I want when I want how I want. It means being able to do what I can.  It means fighting my inner demons and vanquishing them to be who I can be, as an individual, as a family member, as part of a community. It means setting myself free of my own boundaries, my perceived limitations, my expectations, my doubts.

I think what we should all do is expose ourselves to what we’re afraid of. Fears are a good thing. Because the thrill of overcoming them can be rewarding in a way like nothing else can. It is true self-liberation.

 

paragliding
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