A couple of weeks ago, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) contacted me out of the blue and asked if I’d like to get certified as a SCUBA diver. Apparently, a couple of their media folks had had their eye on some of my outdoor recreation and adventure travel writing and thought I wouldn’t necessarily be the worst person in the world to teach diving to.
They could be wrong about this.
I’m claustrophobic to the degree that I will occasionally have mild panic attacks on small commuter jets. And I’m terrified of deep water, especially if I can’t see the bottom. Tell me while I’m in this deep water where I can’t see the bottom that a hammerhead shark might come drifting by, and I might just suddenly decide I want back in the skiff.
So why I told the folks at PADI, “Absolutely, I’d love to learn to dive,” I have no concrete idea. I just know that some of the best experiences of my life have started out scary as hell. Thus, I have a default setting in my brain that says if something seems inordinately challenging or frightening, I just need to jump in and do it.
Fortunately, I have friends who are exactly the same way.
One of them is coming with me on this SCUBA diving trip to the Bahamas. When I asked her if she wanted to go, she squealed and said, “YES!!!!”
Strangely enough, she, like me, is mildly claustrophobic and has never had a particular urge to learn to dive. After her confined water dive experience this last weekend, she told me she was exhausted, felt utterly stupid, somehow passed the test, but was as excited as ever. “But you know since you and I are going to be diving buddies, if you decide you really don’t want to go way down there deep to look at that shipwreck, you know I’ll be okay with that, right?”
I nodded and advised her, given our claustrophobia handicaps and poor multitasking skills (how do you remember to descend slowly, equalize your air spaces, and operate your buoyancy control device all while carrying a steel tank on your back?), that we might come across as geriatric divers. We decided to come up with an underwater hand signal for “how about we ditch this dive and go get a cocktail?”
Which comes back to the question of “Why do it? Why do something scary and unfamiliar that you’re not even sure you’ll enjoy doing?”
Because it might change your life. That’s why.
There are anthropologists who would argue it’s just in the genes of some of us to be risk takers. Is your ring finger longer than your index finger? Mine is. That’s supposed to mean I’m genetically predisposed to sky dive and cheat, ever on the lookout for the next big thrill. Personally, I think it just means I have funny looking fingers.
I don’t do the things I do because I have a genetic compulsion to live on the edge. I do them because experience has taught me that wonderful things happen when you dare to step outside the familiar trappings of your life, challenge yourself, and introduce yourself to people who fire your brain.
When I moved to the isolated mountains of Highland County, Virginia, all by myself 11 years ago, apparently on a whim, quit my day job, and began to pursue a full-time career as a writer, pretty much everyone in my life thought I was crazy. I didn’t think I was crazy. I was just doing what I do–testing the waters of a grand new experiment in living, which in this case was seeing if I really could do what I wanted to do, live where I wanted to live, and be who I wanted to be without going bankrupt.
It turns out I could.
And there have been a lot of other things I’ve done since then that looked risky as hell at the outset but turned my world upside-down in beautiful and amazing ways.
I had my first kayaking experience off St. Croix when I was pregnant with my daughter and a bit reluctant to go paddling off into the sea on a whim. But I shrugged and did it anyway. Years later, sea kayaking is one of my favorite things, and it has allowed me to paddle up to calving glaciers in Alaska and drift along colorful rock formations on Lake Superior I could never have seen otherwise.
Far be it from me to take on the world from the deck of a mega-cruise ship. Because life isn’t something you watch. It’s something you do.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “It is impossible to win the great prizes of life without running risks.” How true. There is nothing nor anyone in this world that I value highly that I have not risked wildly or worked hard to have. My deepest, most rewarding friendships are the result of long and dedicated acquaintance where I dared to risk vulnerability and censure by being myself. The incredible career I live and breathe every day is the result of a no doubt inane belief I could not only pay the bills as a writer but live a pretty darn good life, too. It took years of work and a willingness to leap off the high dive into a precarious world where paychecks didn’t come biweekly to pull it off.
This is not to say risk always pays off in an immediately positive way. Sometimes it blows up in your face. That’s why it’s called “risk.”
Not every wild venture I’ve taken on has turned out for the best. Heaven knows I’ve fallen in love (or thought that I had), only to discover the person on whom I’d showered so much admiration and affection had borderline personality disorder. I’ve taken on a new and way out of my field job with hopes of grand financial remuneration and promotions only to be told by a boss and self-proclaimed amateur chef who paid $300 for a gourmet mushroom that I had to wait my turn, no matter how smart I was, to climb the corporate ladder.
But even the risks that seem not to pay off at first have their own less obvious rewards. They offer lessons that make the next risk not quite so risky. Once you know how to kayak, how to shoot a bow and arrow, how to hit a bull’s eye with a pistol, how to keep from screaming when a sea lion dives at your snorkel mask, and how to survive a broken heart and a foiled career move, things like learning how to SCUBA dive or venturing into a foreign country alone don’t seem quite so daunting. You’ve already proved you can stare down fear.
Don’t confuse staring down fear with not being afraid, however. I’ve never said I wasn’t afraid. Take for instance my trip to Ecuador last summer. After developing a fond acquaintance with a local from Guayaquil who was trying to teach me functional Spanish, I took him up on his offer to show me the city. After we’d strolled the crowded Malecon, eaten ice cream cones on the river, and he’d tested my Spanish reading skills by asking me to read aloud the inscriptions on local monuments, we walked away from the tourist areas, deeper into the heart of the city. I heard gun shots, the streets were more isolated, some apparent acquaintances shouted something in Spanish to my companion that seemed to suggest he had quite the prize in this long-legged, blond American girl he’d found. My gut instinct told me to flee, to find my way back to the five-star hotel where I was registered, to abandon this latest scheme to experience some of the “real” Guayaquil.
But something of the risk taker held fast in me. I smiled at my escort, took his hand, and we walked to dinner where I understood nothing of the exchange he had with the waiter. Instead of worrying about it, I resolved to revel in the sunset over the river, to absorb the melodic sounds of my companion’s voice as he spoke to me in beautifully accented English with a few Spanish words thrown in, and remember this was living. The next morning, my Latin companion delivered me to the airport safely and put me on my way back home.
When I read, a couple months later, about the dangers of Ecuador, about how supposed taxi drivers would pick up foreign tourists and then deliver them into the hands of criminals who would rob them and sometimes even commit physical violence against them, I marveled at my bravery (ignorance?) in Guayaquil. However, I would not have traded the experience of touring the city with a handsome and intelligent local at my side for anything. Despite my girlfriends’ teasing that I had acquired the “bucket list” experience of finding myself a Latin lover, what really counted for me was the insider’s view of Ecuador I received—my companion’s perspective on local politics, social injustice, poverty, and crime. He had brought me, for a moment, into the thick of Ecuadorian life.
And that’s what risk taking does—it takes you into the thick of things. It’s where life happens. So next time a wild opportunity throws itself on your doorstep and you’re not saying “yes” because you’re scared, it might be time to reevaluate. Saying “no” to a possibly life-changing experience isn’t really about being cautious or safe so much as it is about being cynical. And as American political satirist Stephen Colbert says, “Cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics say no. But saying ‘yes” begins things.”
So, readers, let’s begin….