I’ve rerun this story several times through the years, because this childhood incident is at the root of my personal philosophy. I share it as a reminder for these seemingly scary times.
I learned everything I need to know about fear on a steep hill overlooking Lake Champlain in Vermont. I keep coming back to this story whenever anxiety threatens to stop me in my tracks. Childhood lessons sink in deep.
To my younger-than-10-years-old eyes, it looked more like a cliff than a hill; my impression was informed by the shale-like formations that reached down to the beach and disappeared into the pine forest above. Seen from the cabin our parents rented for a week every summer, the forest appeared to grow to the edge of a steep, rocky incline that I wouldn’t be able to scale if I had to.
And one day, I had to.
I can still smell the pine trees, I can still feel the soft but prickly bed of needles against my chest, and I still have a dark spot in my heart from the terror as I lost my tenuous grip on the hillside and plunged over the cliff.
Somewhere around 1960 when I was 7, my brothers and I had gone for a walk through the woods near the cabin. Along this stretch the pines clung precariously to the side of the hill.
The pine needles were thick underneath, and I underestimated how unstable the footing would be, as I wandered far down that nearly vertical hillside, trying to peer over the edge to see the beach through the brush. Next thing I knew, I had slipped. The bed of needles was thick, so thick that I couldn’t really get a grip, and when I did try to climb, every move I made caused me to slide a little farther down.
I was clinging to the side of the nearly vertical slope and unable to climb upward.
“Go get Dad,” I heard my older brother say to my younger brother. “Hang on, War,” he called. Hang on to what?
It didn’t take long for gravity to do its work, and I slid to the edge and then fell, screaming, over the edge of the embankment to the beach below.
The drop from the edge of the cliff to the beach turned out to be four, maybe five feet.
When my brothers ran the long way around to the beach, they found me on the ground unharmed, laughing in relief, laughing at myself for being so terrified.
I think about that cliff a lot, when it seems that life has left me hanging by the fingernails. Fear of the unknown makes us scream. Taking on those fears makes us triumphant — perhaps it even makes us giggle uncontrollably.