Last year I visited Zion National Park in Utah as part of the great road trip that exists on Interstate 15 between Pocatello and San Diego, where my parents now live. While I’m always puzzled at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, or Mormon) penchant for adopting Jewish names, symbols, and beliefs as their own, I can appreciate the decision to name this park Zion. Walking through the cool red canyons and seeing streams glide over sandstone felt distinctly biblical to me. I could almost imagine the gathering of prophets and spiritual seekers in similar oases across the globe thousands of years ago. Zion would be as good a place as any to relocate should one decide to live in a cave and trade wisdom for simple sustenance as a career.
A very popular hike in Zion takes you to what is called Angel’s Landing. This destination is a piece of cake to get to—if you are an angel. For everyone else, it’s a 2.5 mile grind up a steep trail, through an echo-filled canyon, and through a series of tight nearly-vertical switchbacks. This is no big thing—anyone can get up anything if you take it slow enough, and don’t mind watching 6-year olds and senior citizens pass you by.
It’s the last segment of the trail that mystifies me to this day. Basically, a long time ago, someone climbed to the top of a canyon, checked out a steep, narrow cliff-thing that soared several hundred feet higher with nothing but lots and lots of air and gravity on either side, and said “this is a great place to build a trail.” So a vast series of thick chains were set-up to help hikers get to the top. Chains, you have to hold on to chains. After passing signs warning of certain death should I fall, and cautions to people with a fear of heights, I braved the first series of chains before embracing my inner wimp and refusing to hike another inch.
What was interesting about this experience was the refreshing opportunity I had to feel fear of something real—falling off a cliff—instead of being afraid of stuff I’ve made up in my head over the years. Functioning outside of one’s physical comfort zone is a great way to figure out how to function outside of one’s emotional comfort zone. Programs such as Outward Bound, NOLS, study abroad, and pilgrimages to holy lands teach us this.
Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as saying “do one thing every day that scares you.” Do you need to climb Angel’s Landing or ride a zip line every time you need a dose of bravery? Not necessarily, if you’re building up your bravery a teeny bit every day, say by digging around the excuse of “procrastination” to see what irrational fears might be holding you back from your goals.
That day, it was a very easy decision to sit with my back against something very smooth, flat, and solid where I couldn’t see how high up I was to wait for my husband’s summit and return. And I feel no need to ever brave Angel’s Landing again, especially since a woman from Pocatello did fall to her death on that trail this past summer.
But when it comes to the really scary things in life, sometimes we are forced to grab hold of those chains and start climbing–fast. If you’ve got some experience dealing with fear in smaller ways, and have learned that breathing slowly and saying nice things about yourself helps a lot, then you might be able to interpret the pounding of your heart as a sign of excitement rather than panic. By starting small, you might discover that you are stronger and safer than you thought. Even if, in general, you prefer to stick to the slot canyons.