A step into the unknown

There’s big magic in everyday bravery

Woman&Home SA, August 2021

Deep in the forested mountains of northern Taiwan is a small natural pool called Celestial Lake. It’s a swimming hole for the rocky campsite that runs adjacent to it and a minor attraction for those who like jumping off cliffs into pits of icy cold water. I am not one of those people. The mere thought of voluntarily jumping off a height makes me dizzy.

And yet, on this humid Sunday afternoon, I’d followed the rest of the scooter crew to this spot for an afternoon of mild terror and was picking my way across the river to edge along a narrow path up the cliff to the first jump spot.

At the ledge, I inched my foot forward on the smooth stone that the others had kicked off from. In the distance, safely on a towel down on the pebbly riverside, lay Leanne.

Just before I’d started my trek to this point of no return, she’d settled down with a book and sunscreen, untouched by the dilemma of whether to jump or not. ‘Don’t do it,’ she offered matter-of-factly at my hesitation. ‘If you’re scared, don’t do it. I’m not. It scares the hell out of me.’

Her blithe comfort with her own boundaries felt alien to me. It was a long time ago, and I was young and insecure enough to believe that not jumping was a sign of weakness, a fault in my character when the world demanded wildness and reckless abandon in youth. I needed to ‘face my fears’ and ‘be strong’. ‘One life’ and all that. Besides, if everyone else could do it, why the hell couldn’t I? Look where I was! Look how far I’d already come! Yes, the fear was overwhelming me to the point of disassociation and I was starting to black out, but hey, this was living, right?

I squeezed my eyes shut and jumped.

They say that bravery is not about being fearless, but about feeling fear and doing the thing anyway. This was not that. Looking back at that moment on the riverbank with Leanne, I realise now I was faced with two frightening options, not one. The first was jumping off a cliff I didn’t want to jump off. The second was to do exactly what I really wanted to do: lie back and soak up some sun.

I didn’t jump despite my fear, I jumped because the alternative was scarier.

Respecting my own boundaries, instinct and comfort would’ve required taking a stand against all my own preconceived notions of what was right and expected, what I imagined people would think of me.

Nothing about that cliff jump pleased me. I passed out on the way down and was shocked to awareness by the icy wall hitting the side of my body. I came out of the black water gasping for air and if my boyfriend at the time hadn’t been there to hold me up, I suspect I would’ve drowned.

If the Celestial Lake brought me any wisdom that day, it was that bravery doesn’t always put on a big face with a loud voice.

It seems to me that bravery is always presented like a superpower that’s ignited at the cusp of a Big Life Moment, like skydiving for the first time or running into a fire to save a life, or presenting to the Board, standing up to a bully or telling someone you love them. 

But I think bravery can be far more commonplace than that, the risks it takes far quieter, sometimes even unseen. There is a steadfastness to its full expression that I think is overlooked.

Like the courage it takes to commit to the small, consistent steps on the journey towards a dream or personal healing, when the destination feels so very far away and the path so often dark. Or the bravery you need to engage in courageous conversations or accept accountability in a mistake; the daring to embrace intimacy or press forward with a divorce.

Yes. There’s big magic in everyday bravery.

And maybe the biggest lies in simply choosing to honour your authentic self and staying on the towel for a snooze under the sun on a pebbly riverbank.

This column was first published in Woman&Home SA.