Fear, Risk Aversion, Aging, and Doing Something Dangerous

I am heading towards a monumental birthday this year in May — let’s just call it the Medicare Birthday and leave it at that.
For as long as I can remember, built within my personality, is being extremely risk-adverse. I was not one of those kids who would try dangerous or risky things. Even my first visits to amusement parks were fraught with worry and evaluating “safe” versus “risky” rides. The Ferris Wheel therefore was out, and this is a lifelong thing, as I do not want to rock back and forth in a carriage all the way up in the sky. I eventually did ride on roller coasters and some more “dangerous” rides as I grew up, and even enjoyed them – particularly Space Mountain at Disneyland and Disney World – where you fly around on a roller coaster in THE DARK! So some of this fear of danger has been overcome when the “fun” factor is involved.

I was also not the kind of kid who would try dangerous things either – drinking and drugs were out of the question through high school. I even asked my home-room advisor for permission when I cut school in high school, to visit colleges, as I would not just skip for fear of being caught.

I also never gamble – EVER. I simply do not want to risk losing my money. This is just another example of my personality avoiding risk. 

This avoidance of risk has gotten worse with age, as many things/fears do in the aging process.

Here is where this risk-adverse nature limits me: I seek safety and security at all times. We all know that sometimes you have to take risks to grow in business, or grow as a person. I know I could have achieved much more if I had been willing to leave safe situations and taken a risk, but I was always too afraid. People who know me as the person who wrote hundreds of features for our large local newspaper, (as a sideline) and as someone who has been published nationally and internationally probably wonder why it is not my main career. It is possibly fear of failure, or fear of making a change as I have always held other more business-oriented administrative positions for my full time work. That book/ books I have been working on is STILL in progress and it is not just procrastination, but possibly fear of failure.

Now that you have read about my scaredy-cat personality, read on.

I just got back from a wonderful retreat at a Miraval Spa (in Austin and very highly recommended) and aside from luxurious spa facilities, and yoga and exercise classes, they encourage personal growth and offer a wide variety of activities and classes with that goal in mind. I went with one of my very dearest friends in the entire world, Marci.

Just as I would NEVER have chosen to go on a huge high Ferris Wheel (my fear of heights has worsened with age) the Miraval activities offered that involved taking a leap of faith with huge risks (of failure or injury) would be something I would typically avoid. 

Yet, before I went, I read some YELP reviews and two experiences seemed to be the most transforming. I was willing to start my own transformation at my almost (in MAY) Medicare eligible age.

We met a woman there who was celebrating her 60th birthday and wanted to have 60 new experiences for her major life event. Marci and I thought this was a good plan and thought we could do 65 new experiences and record them in the journal we were given by Miraval. 

Miraval offers many opportunities to reflect on your life and inspire personal growth. We kept hearing the Eleanor Roosevelt quote there, and Marci looked it up. It is:

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you stop and really look fear in the face.”

Fear of heights be damned,  I signed up for the very high up “Ropes type” challenge course, all the time doubting that I would go through with it. Marci was skeptical too, and I forced her to do it with me. After I saw the actual course and took the photos below, my fears crept in, and asked the typical questions of instructors about safety. No one has ever died on the course, and older people even into their 80’s have done it.

The rope climb
Second part, rickety planks

Note – higher than tree tops! The Logs were next!

As I soon learned, it was more than facing my fear of heights. It was about facing my fear of taking ANY risks. At age 65, I guess I was ready to try to have some courage in the face of fear.

During the long weekend retreat, Marci and I both did things that were a bit of a risk for us – uncomfortable things that we wanted to give a try. One, aerial yoga, is much more physically demanding than I ever imagined because it looks so beautiful when those Cirque du Soleil acrobats wrap themselves in silk and climb things. Although I knew that these people in Cirque du Soleil were talented athletes, I still thought it would be easier than it was. It requires strength, determination, and yes, risk, because after you wrap yourself UPSIDE DOWN, you have to let go of the silks and KNOW you will not fall out. Mission accomplished.

Back to the CRAZY and RISKY challenge course: we did it during dusk and dark falling, which was even more insane. We were the oldest two of our group and during the challenge, I was sure Marci, my best and dearest friend who is so in sync and in tune with me, would never forgive me. It was DIFFICULT, and fraught with terror for both of us. 

We started by being strapped into a harness that had two clips for attaching to steel line that would be above us. We received training and then started by climbing a rope-net several stories. So far, so good. It was physically taxing, and I got a rope burn at my ankle, but I was okay during it. When I got to the top, there was a platform high up in the air, where my clips would be attached to the steel rope above me, but then I had to climb through three major obstacles, dragging the clip on the above steel line ahead of me the entire time.

The first obstacle was the most terrifying for me and it turned out that way for Marci too. It was a series of wiggly planks attached to chains that moved every which way as you stepped on them. You had to get past them to get to the next platform. High up in the air, both Marci and I lost our footing on this first part, and as I screamed into the night air to no avail, I was thinking about quitting as sheer terror filled my mind. The worst scenario kept entering my mind and started an internal battle- what if I fell off? Since I was harnessed in, falling off would have meant being dangled high in the air by a tether and having to hoist my big body back up to the obstacle, and this was not something I wanted to try. Doubt plagued me, even though I knew I was in good shape and had the agility to conquer this monster. Since I had no choice, I had to tough up and use some internal fortitude and forge on.

Marci, who was just behind me, and I both got past that rickety planks thing, and got to the next platform. The next obstacle was a thick log that you walked across. I knew I had the balance to pull this one off, and sure enough, it was easier for me and I reached the next  platform with less fear. That was short-lived as next obstacle off the platform was a wire tightrope – high up in the air- with no safety net below.

We had to walk across a single thin wire to get to the last platform. My choice at this point, was to just keep going forward, there was no turning back. Fortunately we had taken a slackline course earlier in the day, and we knew to bend our knees to calm the wire, and that’s what we both did to walk across and get to the last platform. I was still shaking with fear on the last platform, and we were still high in the air, and we hadn’t yet been told how to get down! I just wanted to be on that ground in the worst way.

Navigating the logs

Close up

Closeup of me looking at the wire tightrope to be walked next, plus I had to transfer my clips. Yikes!

At this point on the last platform, Marci was really upset with me for making her do this crazy activity and she told me so. I was worried our close friendship was in jeopardy. Still it seemed the hardest part was over, just awaiting how to get on terra firma.

The last phase was the best part – a zip-line, where they attached our clips and we went hurtling through the air towards the ground. I must admit that I have never zip-lined before, but boy is it ever FUN. Marci and I went down in tandem, but first we had to step out onto a little last ledge, sit our rears down and dangle our legs off, high above the ground. UNCOMFORTABLE and SCARY once again for me especially as we had to wiggle our butts to the edge of the platform, but again, I had no choice at that point.

The second instructor took videos of Marci and I whizzing down the zip-line, feeling like kids and giggling together like we did back in high school. In fact, we both were so relieved at the fun and thrill of the last exercise, we giggled out of control and it was all beautifully captured on video. Our other comrades on our course loved our reaction to our very first zip-line experience. WHEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!! What a reward and what a relief!

The de-brief session afterwards, with our instructor named Sunshine, who is a true Native American who lives with her tribe, put clarity on the entire experience.

I cried during the de-briefing. I had to review the experience the next days and what it provided for me to really give me some clarity as to why I cried during the de-brief.

My tears were for several reasons. First, the experience was a metaphor for life as it is true that when you get overwhelmed, and especially fearful, you have no choice but to keep planting one foot in front of the other and keep plodding on through life. High up in the air, it was the same choice. There are many times in my life where I was almost beaten down to the point where I could not see myself taking the next steps forward, yet, I always did, just as I did on this challenging course. I faced the same fears and doubts on those occasions that I could master what life put in front of me, whether I could survive. The truth is that I am a survivor. I am a warrior. Giving up was never a real option.

Also, my tears were because I faced my worst fears (of heights and of failure) and I took a huge risk which is something I would ALWAYS avoid, and I felt so wonderfully accomplished for doing that. My tears were of pride and accomplishment. It made me understand that you CAN face your fears and come out victorious, even in the face of severe doubt. I was also proud that I took a voluntary and seemingly dangerous risk to try to have a bit of movement in my stubborn nature to always avoid fear. It made me want to take baby steps in the direction of being brave as I carry on through life instead of letting fear of risk define me.

I cannot live the rest of my life afraid. Danger exists everywhere, and we must summon our inner strength and plod on – that is the lesson I got from this. Risk and reward go together sometimes, and life is about new experiences, and yes, even adventure when it is presented to you despite older age.

Oh, and if you are wondering if Marci forgave me? The answer is that she is always willing to have an experience where she will grow, and as it turned out, this was a positive experience for her as well. We are soul sisters, forever to be connected and to be perfectly in sync with one another. And she is working on planning a return visit with another somewhat risky adventure to undertake during that return.


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