…and you might just learn how to fly
So here we are, at the beginning of 2022 (didn’t we just finish 2020?). Who remembers when we thought covid was a 6-week thing? It’s not an overstep to suggest that the last two years have been hard. 2021 was the false start of a trigger pistol at an Olympic sprint race. 2022 is Cathy Freeman. It’s the year that carries the hopes of a nation, the year we hope we’ll finally see a win.
For most of us, surviving the pandemic has been, and still is, the hardest thing we’ve ever endured. Last year we crawled to the finish line; exhausted from a marathon, rather than the sprint we were sold.
The global pandemic, an unprecedented 100-year event, forced us to make tough decisions, whether it be about livelihoods, location or family. We’ve all had to take a damn hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves “why”?
If you’ve ever read Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning (and if you haven’t, I highly recommend you do), first published in 1946, Frankl details his experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. Not to be a spoiler, but at the end of the book Frankl concludes that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living; even in extreme suffering, life continues on. The purpose of life is found in choice. Quite simply, it’s the freedom to choose.
Last year I proved to myself that even during challenges, change can happen. I landed a new job, in a new city, and secured a new apartment, all whilst ducking and weaving in and out of government-imposed lockdowns. I’m no stranger to moving (this will be my 5th city in 10 years), but 2021 presented new problems to solve and navigate. Even with an incredible emotional safety net of family and friends, I felt like I had just hurdled myself out of a plane and into the vast unknown with nothing but 20,000 feet below. I was running high on adrenalin being thrown into the deep-end of unchartered waters again. In hindsight, I realise I bit off more than I could chew. Did I really need to do everything all at once? New job, new city, new work project, new apartment, and all in a matter of weeks! I guess you could say I’m an adrenaline junkie. I thrive on throwing myself head first into challenges. Whilst many have questioned my decisions, I’ve never really slowed down long enough to ask why? Sometimes I feel like a comet, full of energy, a glowing streak stretching towards the sun, pushing myself out of my comfort zone. But comets are made of rock, and even rocks can break.
Perhaps my breaking point came on this most recent last year. Whilst staying with my Aunt one night in between moves (when breaking my lease meant I literally had nowhere to go), she asked me a very simple question during a very complicated time: “Why are you doing all this Leah?” It was soft in tone, yet loud in subtext. “I just hope it’s worth it” she said.
Ten years ago, I suffered a sky diving accident in Thailand. I’m not joking. This is a true story, and I’m not saying for this for shock-value. As we start the new year, I want to impart a timely reminder that with every cause there is also an effect. Whether that’s a positive or negative experience, never take for granted there will always be a moment to decide.
It was the eve of my 29th Birthday and I had two Israeli friends come to stay with me at my Bangkok apartment on Sathorn Road. They had just come from a few months. travelling around Cambodia and Laos and they were looking forward to an air-conditioned apartment. I was happy to show them around town and to take them to my favourite Khao Pad Gai vendor at the markets. In return, as a thank you to my hospitality, they showed their gratitude in only the way Israelis can. On the morning of my birthday, I opened my bedroom door and looked down at my toes to see three pieces of crisp white A4 paper evenly spaced out on the floor. Written in bold with a black sharpie were the numbers, 3, 2, 1 and further down the hallway there was a fourth piece of paper with the word, JUMP.
Confused, I asked them what this was all about? I can’t say I was feeling as excited when they revealed, with cheerful glee, their unique idea to gift me a skydiving experience. “Thanks guys, that’s very thoughtful but I just can’t do that, it’s not for me.” I went to get my morning coffee in the kitchen. It was too early for this level of excitement. “Yalla, Leah, C’mon, you can do it!”. They yelled cheering me on in thick Israeli accents. “Oh no, no, no, sorry, I really can’t. “We thought you’d say that so we booked you a Taxi. See, the Taxi is waiting for you. You are going now.” They pointed beyond to the balcony window, and below the high-rise apartment building I could see a lonesome taxi waiting downstairs. “No way! No, you are not serious? No, I’m not going now?!” “Ken, Leah! Yes! Yalla you go now!”
Agreeing in reluctant hesitation, I was then whisked away and found myself alone, in a pink Thai taxi that smelt like garlic; Buddhist amulets dangling from the rear vision mirror. My Israeli friends didn’t accompany me as they had to fly out of Bangkok that day, so I was left riding solo. The voice inside me told me “No” Leah don’t do this. The raging ball of light inside me said “Yes”, Leah go. It was decided. The internal whirring comet of energy propelling me further out of my comfort zone.
Two hours later the taxi driver dropped me off in an abandoned air field in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t read or write Thai so I had no idea where I was based on road signs. With instinct, and limited Taxi-Thai, I estimated I was somewhere in the vicinity of Pattaya, Chon Buri Province, south east of Bangkok. I looked up at the plump grey cumulus clouds in the sky. Was I really going up there? I pondered the infinity of space and distance, before texting my sister to inform her I was in the middle of nowhere and about to jump out of a plane. I dramatically told her ‘if you don’t hear from me, tell Mum and Dad I love them’, before turning my phone off and walking towards a small wooden hut where tourists were gathering. At least I could recognise English.
I announced myself to the Manager and was asked to take a seat in the timber hut to wait out the impending monsoonal rain storm that swelled above. I was welcomed by a small group of international tourists made up of Dutch, German, Japanese, Swiss and British. We waited 3 hours until the rain cleared just enough for the pilot to green-light our flight. The tourists brewed with excitement and chatter but all I heard was “Leah you’re up” an authoritative, deep American voice summoned. “Wait. What? Me?” I felt the cold nervous rush of diarrhoea pains kick. Everyone looked excited. I just looked terrified.
Doug was a 6 foot 4, American, bald-headed, ginger-bearded, weathered-looking man with Ray-Bans, who I later came to learn was a former US Navy SEAL who had completed over 10,000 sky dives. I wasn’t too sure if I should trust Doug, he looked like a character out of Breaking Bad, and someone more likely to cook up meth on weekends rather than pack parachutes for tourists. Doug was a going to be the man whose chest I would be clinging to for dear life as I plummeted to earth. Is this the really man I would hear my last goodbyes?
There was little-to-no training time for safety precautions, because we had a small window of clear skies, and before I knew it, Doug was strapping on my life vest and back pack, hooking up carabiner locks, and tying up lose straps.
We marched out of the tin shed like prisoners of war, towards a light aircraft that had been hollowed out and repurposed for adventure junkies. Each step slow and viscous. This wasn’t me. I wasn’t a reckless person. What was a trying to prove? I had willingly got myself to this point. I chose to accept my friend’s challenge, I got myself into a taxi and to the air field, and yet I hadn’t fully comprehended that I was about to jump out of a plane until I was actually in the plane. I’m sure a psychologist could explain this more logically to you. But I realised how easy it was to get oneself into a situation even if you couldn’t fully recognise the extent to which it would unfold. Sitting pressed up against Doug, crammed into this tiny aircraft like sardines in a tin can, it wasn’t until I saw clouds that the shock set in. Or maybe it was adrenalin? Everything slowed right down to long, deep, pulsating rhythm. Doug’s instructions sounded like a broken recording tape that had unravelled, his words, a slow-motion playback. I closed my eyes and prayed. I prayed for Mum, Dad and my sister and thanked the Universe for an amazing life. I prayed that Mum and Dad would play Beyonce at my funeral.
Doug edged me closer to the opening of the plane door trap. Biting cold air smacked me in the face. “Swing your legs over there, and hold on up here” Doug yelled close into my ear, getting me in position for the drop. I peeked out over 20,000 feet; my legs went numb. Knowing your body is going against gravity is the most unnatural feeling in the world. My heart beat in my throat. My blood ran cold. I couldn’t feel my face. This was it, this was the end. “Leah, you with me?” Doug yelled. I nodded. I couldn’t speak. “On the count of 3… Ok….” “No No No No No! I can’t do it.” “Yes, yes Leah you can. Ok, here we go. “3, 2…. “
There was no 1. Doug had pushed me out.
Then there was nothing. No more thoughts. No more words left to say. There was no safety net. Only air and earth. There’s just you and this person, you’re entwined to, flying through clouds. You’re falling so fast you don’t even know it, but just before you do, you’re yanked back into reality and able to contemplate your mortality again.
If I’m honest, I can’t say I found it an enjoyable experience. Some people recall their adventure experiences as one of the best experiences of their lives. “Omg, Skydiving is ahmaziiiing, everyone should try it once!” No it’s not. And that’s certainly not the kind of advice I’d ever dispense. In truth my skydiving experience was a train wreck. I found out later that the parachute was packed incorrectly and Doug had to pull on the cord three times before it would finally open. When the chute did open, it ballooned with a staggered effect, rebounding us both so hard and fast, as if we were a small ping-pong ball attached to a piece of string bouncing off a tennis bat. When this launch occurred, my neck snapped back so harshly it dislocated a disc between my C3 and C4 vertebrae. I have still never fully recovered despite years of physiotherapy treatment. Oh, and I also burst my ear drum. Good times.
So, what’s the moral of this story I hear you ask? How will sharing this help you? Aside from a little public service announcement encouraging you to undertake adventure sports in countries with strict safety protocols, I’m here to ask you, in 2022, “what are you willing to jump for?”
Whilst I may have reluctantly jumped into this, I am ultimately proud of my skydiving experience. Experiences that push us out of our comfort zone are not easy. That is why they are formidable. I was shit scared, I had no training on the day. I didn’t know what I was doing, and yet I still honoured that small internal compass that led me to get in the taxi and go, despite not knowing where I was going.
My attitude to my skydiving experience can best be summarised by my favourite Viktor Frankl quote : “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Whilst I will live to tell another story, I certainly won’t be skydiving again. Even now as I recall this experience almost 10 years ago, still get nervous. I won’t glorify it. Not all life affirming experiences are big leaps of faith. Small ones take courage too. But all experiences that push you out of your comfort zone have silver linings.
Not all life affirming experiences are big leaps of faith. Small ones take courage too. But all experiences that push you out of your comfort zone have silver linings.
That day I learnt that I can do anything. You can’t always rely on friends, leaders or guidance from others, but you can rely on yourself. Every experience will hone your skills and instincts. Over time you’ll learn to navigate unchartered waters with confidence. Stress is just a data point, and feeling uncomfortable is the stimulus response to change. Your brain will always tell you that you can’t do something. We are hard-wired to protect ourselves. With every challenge, you’ll learn how to harness these feelings and build resilience, adaptability, patience and tenacity, these are just some of the foundational building blocks that can lead you to do almost anything in life.
We all want to soar above the clouds and feel like we are living our best life, a life of meaning and purpose. Whilst I don’t wish you pain or injury, I can most certainly guarantee that there will be tumbles and stumbles along the way. So, for this start of 2022, I want to challenge you, how will you harness your right to choose? Sometimes progress comes in the smallest of steps. It’s your choice. Your wings deserve to fly.