A fear of heights is irrational. Or at least, that’s the way it has been for me. At age 4, apparently, I climbed up an 8 metre high antenna in our back yard and got myself safely down without a problem. At age 10 I was clambering over the roof of the church where my father was in ministry. Granted, it was the transept roof and not the highest part of the towering 1865 Methodist Church, but still high — and steep. In subsequent years I could climb up ladders to legitimately access a roof, take any tree top walk, and swing around on rope courses without batting an eyelid. And, oh, how I loved suspension bridges!
I don’t know what changed, but I can pinpoint the moment when I realised something was different. It was 7 years ago, and I was climbing a staircase which had wrought iron-type steps (the ones with holes roughly the size of a coin) and after about a dozen steps I “froze.” I could not go up any further — my legs wouldn’t move. In the end, I had to make a less-than-dignified descent on my backside, a “bottom-shuffle” one step at a time. And my legs shook for a long time afterwards.
This is what I mean by it being an irrational fear: I can climb up a mountain and look across a valley without any problems at all, and get all shaky being three rungs up a ladder. I can go up in a glass-walled elevator on the side of a tall building and look out over a city and be fine, yet when climbing up one flight of steps with no solid back to them, my knuckles go white on the handrail. It doesn’t make sense. It has nothing to do with how high something is, and it doesn’t even seem to matter if there is a solid barrier between me and a drop down. And, if that doesn’t convince you that it is irrational, walking around near Johnstons Bay on a part that is a boardwalk I can feel a rising sense of panic sometimes when I notice the water just a few metres below through some cracks, and yet I was able to do a hot-air balloon ride a few years ago with no trembling — even when I leaned out of the basket and looked at the ground about a kilometre below us.
It is not rational, but I think I have worked out what brings the fear of heights to the foreground for me: when I am on something solid, I am alright. As soon as I can see something below what my feet are walking on, even if it is not very high, I struggle.
This year I have heard ever so many stories from people reflecting how the year seems to continue to go “downhill.” And the struggles we are all facing are very real; we hold some of the struggle in common, and our individual experiences remain unique to us. I want to reflect for a moment that instead of it being a downward spiral, perhaps this year is an upward climb. Going up is hard work. It requires a lot of energy and perseverance. I certainly get tired more quickly going uphill than downhill. I need to pause more often to catch my breath and even to think through whether the effort is worth it. At times in my ‘climbing’ this year, I have felt that the legs of my faith have become very wobbly. I have sensed that my knuckles are going white as I try to cling on to whatever I can that will offer me safety and keep me from falling.
Looking back over the last 6 months, as we have all had to adjust to a different way of living, and being community-at-a-distance, I find that the times when I have struggled the most have not been the times when I have had the greatest height to climb, rather it has been the times when I have tried to climb whatever “mountain” is before me on my own. We would all know that it is Jesus who gives us our solid foundation, who is the ‘rock’ beneath us. I don’t want to go all twee and ‘holier than thou,’ so I’m just going to say it straight: when I step forward trusting that Jesus is with me (just as he promised), I am on solid ground, and I can climb to any height without being afraid. When I step forward forgetting that Jesus is with me, I can see all the gaps where there are no answers, no reasons, no clear way forward, and I am filled with fear to the point of not being able to move. It is not that faith in Jesus takes away all the things that threaten our comfort or safety. I am reminded of the story Jesus told of the two builders, one who built on sand and the other who built on rock. Even the one who built on the rock had to face the rain and floods and winds (Matthew 7:24-27).
Finding our solid foundation will not make the pandemic go away. It will not protect us from contracting the virus. What it offers us is the strength to keep climbing each moment no matter what we face. It can help us face our fears with courage and trust. And hope. This is how we can keep moving forward each day. Sometimes it might indeed look and feel like a “bottom-shuffle,” but seriously, that is ok — I am honoured to shuffle alongside you!
Blessings and peace,