That’s what my good friend called me recently. “Look at what you did this past year,” she said. “You went up in a sail plane. You snorkeled over a shark. You’re not afraid to try new things. You put yourself out there all the time. Oh, and remember that time you went hiking by yourself in the alps and were almost mauled by wild goats?”
If she didn’t think I was afraid of those goats, she was dead wrong…
Several years back, I was fortunate to travel through Switzerland with my sister and brother-in-law. We took a slow-moving scenic cog train up the mountain Gornergrat, one of many tall peaks surrounding the famed Matterhorn. After we had completed our sightseeing, we boarded the train for our descent back to the village of Zermatt. The conductor announced that one of the upcoming stops featured a short hike to a pristine glacial lake where the Matterhorn could be viewed in perfect reflection. Thinking what a fabulous photo opportunity this would be, I impulsively assured my sister that I would be fine hiking across the open terrain and so I fled the train alone.
With the great Matterhorn in front of me as a guide, I trekked rolling green meadows with a Julie Andrew’s soundtrack playing in my head, “the hills are a-live, with the sound of mu-sic…” I meandered along worn zig-zagged paths across the alpine meadow, taking snapshots of unique colorful wildflowers and interesting lichens growing on the numerous rocks scattered along the terrain. I began to notice strange pellets on the ground. Having seen no wildlife, my curiosity was piqued as to what animal might have produced it. Placing a credit card on the ground for scale, I snapped a photograph, intending to ask one of the guides to help me identify it when I reached the base of the mountain.
I ascended each small rolling hill expecting to find the lake on the other side, but instead I only found more hills. I began to tire; I had walked for a long time. The light was beginning to soften as the sun shifted lower in the sky. I conceded that I was never going to find the lake. Discouraged, I turned around and began to hike back up the mountain in the general direction I had come. As I ascended another small knoll, I suddenly found myself standing face to face with a large herd of wild mountain goats, perched on a slight rocky ridge about 15-20 feet in front of me.
Quickly, I began a mental assessment of the situation. Had anyone ever been attacked by wild goats? I didn’t think so, but I wasn’t certain.Then, my eyes met the stare of a large shaggy male standing in the middle of the others. His long horns curved up impressively like a sneer; he was obviously the leader. He stopped chewing grass momentarily, sizing me up, a middle aged woman whose only possessions were the hiking clothes on her back, a credit card in her pocket and a camera with photos of mountains, wildflowers and goat scat.
There was no where for me to go except “away”. I backed up in as calm and as nonthreatening a manner as possible. Panic began to ripple throughout the herd as they nervously shuffled amongst each other; babies bleated pitiful calls for their mothers. The angry male began to navigate the rocky bluff on sure-footed hooves; the herd obediently followed. Then, with a toss of his head, he led the herd trotting past me, descending the mountain in the same direction from which I had come. With my adrenaline pumping I breathed a sigh of relief.
I was safe.
I have been fortunate. My whole life, I had only known fear in fleeting moments. Perhaps that is why I didn’t recognize it when years later, it appeared to me in the form of anxiety, sitting uncomfortably by my side for months on end. I tried to push it away, but it wouldn’t budge; my efforts to resist only seemed to pull me further down.
I was vaguely aware that something in my life wasn’t working, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I was fifty years old and exhausted. I had become like a machine, going through the motions of life. It took so much effort just trying to keep all the balls in the air, something I did because I thought I had to. Some of the balls were mine, but many belonged to other people; I had simply picked them up as they rolled by and added them to my stack without thinking. My feelings inside had been ignored for so long, I didn’t know how to feel them anymore. My fuse grew short. I felt trapped and lashed out. I spouted anger and blame.
I felt broken. I was broken.
Then, with that small act of surrender, the strangest thing happened. Immediately, I felt better. Imagine… feeling broken actually felt better than trying to not feel broken. Changes, something emitting from my heart, began to seep from my pores and rise to the surface. I found I could no longer live in denial. The truth was revealed to me in the form of a question.
What was I afraid of?
I was afraid of so many things. I was afraid of dropping the balls. I was afraid of failure. I was afraid of being trapped in a life that didn’t work for me. I was afraid of being seen as a fool, my shame a secret exposed for the world to see. You see, I’d begun to realize I’d made a big mistake. I had handed over my power to other people, institutions and circumstances that did not have my best interest in mind. The success I had pursued, every pat on the back, every item I had checked off my list of accomplishments, ultimately betrayed me us when the sense of achievement they afforded me was something false- a feeling not unlike immortality. My ego had begun taking credit for what is really grace.
How I’d forgotten that feeling of being safe and cocooned by God’s love. I’d forgotten that life itself calls us to step out in faith, not to withdraw. I had to be broken to remember the truth that God is with us and within us all the time. I had to stop running and be still. I had to stop and breathe. As I began to relinquish control over people and situations that were causing my anxiety, and to try to meet them with an open heart, they lost much of their power and influence over me. I let go and the sky did not fall!
I have begun this new journey in mid-life. I refuse to live a life of fear. This is not only my journey, it’s our journey. From author Elizabeth Lesser:
“Things do fall apart. It is in their nature to do so. When we try to protect ourselves from the inevitability of change, we are not listening to the soul. We are listening to our fear of life and death, our lack of faith, our smaller ego’s will to prevail. To listen to your soul is to stop fighting with life–to stop fighting when things fall apart; when they don’t go our away, when we get sick, when we are betrayed or mistreated or misunderstood. To listen to the soul is to slow down, to feel deeply, to see ourselves clearly, to surrender to discomfort and uncertainty and to wait.”