Out on a Limb...
BY: Michael Vernon
Sometimes you don't know what you don't know and that could be a good thing. I didn't know that I was afraid of heights. In my youth, I performed climbing feats of daring and I attempted them without much thought about the consequences. My best friend lived in a log style home. Where the corners of the log home criss-crossed, it made for a perfect ladder to gain access to the roof. Of course the last part was a bit tricky, needing enough arm strength to pull up and over the extended eve of the roof's edge. But once on the roof, at ten years old, my buddy and I were the kings of the world.
We were climbing monkeys in those days, no matter what the challenge, we would climb it. Trees were our most common perch and there were plenty of trees. Our dream tree was an old Silver Cottonwood in a neighbor's yard. It was the tallest of all the trees. It had huge limbs. Lying on our backs in the cool grass, we'd look up and imagine our very own tree house hanging in its boughs. The problem for us was the tree was too tall and there was no way for us to get up to the first limb. You can always dream.
I was about twelve years old when I had what turned out to be a spiritual climbing experience. I considered myself a daredevil in those days. Hell, every show on TV exemplified someone doing impossible stunts, especially the westerns. Not far from where I lived, there was a house on two lots. It was a favorite place to play. There was a large grassy area with shrubs and bushes to hide under and a row of Elm trees, which offered some of the best climbing. One day, I noticed how two of the Elm trees had limbs growing out towards one another. From the ground it looked as though the limbs actually touched. I had the genius idea that I could climb up one tree and switch over to the other limb and climb down on a different tree. You know, it would be a good idea to have an alternate escape route if you are twelve years old and up a tree.
I was alone for this expedition. I climbed up the first tree without a problem. I straddled the limb that grew out towards the junction of the two limbs. The limb I sat on was not as big around as it had appeared when I hatched my scheme. Never the less, it was more than stout enough to handle my weight. As I scooted along the limb it became difficult to balance because of the limb's girth. The limb was not large enough for me to squeeze my thighs with enough grip to help hold me steady along the limb. I had to use my arm strength and hand gripping to move along and keep my balance as the limb swayed in a light breeze.
I was out of breath when I finally reached the junction of the limbs only to find that the second limb was not touching the limb that I was sitting upon. Still, the maneuver at first did not appear to be any more difficult than the assent to the roof of the log house.
While waiting to catch my breath, I pondered my next climbing move. It would really require me to stand up, somehow, and then step across to the other limb. Oh, oh! I began to recognize that my plan for changing limbs was quickly becoming riddled with holes. In order to stand, I had to get my legs underneath me, but the limb was too narrow for that. Above my head there were wispy branches dangling, but nothing strong enough to grab. A frail effort to pull myself up to standing only resulted in a hand full of leaves.
Now what? Perhaps twelve to fourteen feet off the ground, jumping was not an option. Oops! It was then that I realized how high the tree was that I had climbed. A flash of panic wafted through my emotions. Fear coursed through my body as I became aware of my predicament. However, the fear gradually faded away once I decided to abandon my limb swapping adventure in exchange for a plan of retreat.
Fair enough! I was alone. No one was going to call me chicken and there was no need to share the episode with anyone else. Fine, I decided to slide back the way that I had climbed up. There was just one little problem. Friction! Lifting myself up and pushing backward on the limb was not as easy as it was scooting forward. Then there was the balance thing, remember? On my first attempt to move backward, the friction of my jeans on the rough bark caused me to lose my balance and I almost fell. With wide eyes and sweaty palms, I said something that surely got me four "Our Fathers" and three "Hail Mary's" at confession. The problem I had with sliding back meant that I had to release my legs from squeezing on the limb, raise my butt up using only arm strength and leaning slightly forward, and push myself backwards. By this time my arms were weakened to the point that I could not balance without holding on with my legs. The panic returned big time and I froze up. I hugged the limb in desperation. Reality check! For the first time in my life, I was afraid of heights. I was stuck, out on a limb, with panic fueling my fear. I was all alone and it was late in the day, about supper time. My friends were indoors and that is where I should have been too.
I don't know how long I clung to the limb in an altered state of sheer panic. I do remember the sickening feeling of the panic attack and how I was too scared to move a muscle. Eventually I regained composure and came to the conclusion that my only solution was to move backward ever so slowly while hugging the limb. With my chest to the limb, I was able to figure out an alternative method of moving backward that allowed me to inch back towards the main trunk of the tree. Once on the ground and a bit scuffed up, the feeling of relief was overwhelming. Strange too, I had a sense of accomplishment. Looking back up into the boughs of my folly, the trees' limbs still appeared to be crossing just as before. That experience pretty much ended my climbing days. No way in hell would I ever to be the climbing boy I once was.
Fear is an important emotion. Fear is both an innate and learned behavior. It keeps us safe. It tells us when danger is present. However, sometime, fear is overly stated, ingrained by another's influence. The tendency may be to live a life that subscribes to someone else's dogma, life dictated by other's fears. Self empowerment comes from the freedom of from not taking on someone else's beliefs. Manipulation into our lives is spawned by negative emotions and beliefs that do not support or nurture our life's goals. A lack of confidence, for example, makes it easy for another to influence our beliefs. Too often another's fear becomes our own simply because of a lack of confidence. Sometimes their fear imprints on us just like the image of a credit card, pressed by the old style embossing machine onto a carbon receipt. We hardly know what is happening and suddenly we are afraid in a certain situation. We have taken on someone else's fear impression.
When a life is lived without examination, and without questioning, sometimes we don't know what we don't know until we are out on a limb. The end of the limb is a dangerous place to have to reflect and learn, although many of us wait until that time to realize that we have put ourselves in a bad situation. We are hoping to be one of those who receive a flash of enlightenment when we have no recourse. What if we're not though?
Allowing reflection and introspection to become a part of our lives is more useful. We then have a daily perspective on fears and their origins. When we come to the crossed limbs, we then can have a plan. We have options; we have flexibility, because we know ourselves. We have not waited until the end of the line or end of the limb to get information. It's just a lot safer that way.
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