What You Find Out About Yourself at 13,000 Feet - OZY | A Modern Media Company

What You Find Out About Yourself at 13,000 Feet

What You Find Out About Yourself at 13,000 Feet

By Lyndon Conrad Bell


Because sometimes you just need to jump out of the effin’ plane.

By Lyndon Conrad Bell

In that first moment, I knew something was wrong — very wrong. The rules of physics by which my body had always been governed had suddenly been rendered moot. In midair, with nothing supporting me, there was only falling. But even that was different.

All previous falls had been brief skirmishes with gravity. Win or lose, they were over in less than a second. Slicing through the atmosphere at nearly 120 miles per hour, 13,000 feet above the ground, was so far from anything I’d ever associated with falling I was struggling to comprehend it.


For the briefest moment, an adrenaline-tinged impulse of fear triggered, only to be squashed by the knowledge I was not alone. Someone considerably more experienced was strapped to my back, and his life was just as much at risk as mine. Right here, I know a lot of people would say, “Yeah? So what if he decided that day was his last day and he took your stupid ass with him?” To which I can only reply, this is why we cannot allow fear to govern our lives.

Having driven a car at nearly 200 mph on the autobahn, I asked myself, “How different can skydiving be?”

So, how did I get there? It all started with a question — well, actually more of a plea. “My birthday’s coming up and there’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but I’ve been too afraid. If you go with me, I know I won’t be, though.” (So many people have coerced their friends into doing stupid shit with that line.)

“What is it?” I asked, hoping my girlfriend was thinking something simple, like maybe a float down the Zambezi river in a rowboat.

“Skydiving! Come with me, please? You aren’t afraid of anything.”

She had me there. Instead of experiencing fear, I tend to respect things that could kill me. I’m not afraid to try stuff; I just do everything I can to make sure I survive. Having driven a car at nearly 200 mph on the autobahn, I asked myself, “How different could skydiving be?”

Which is how, some $185 later, I found myself sitting in the doorway of a Skydive California plane, 13,000 feet above the Central Valley. According to the United States Parachute Association, there have been a mere 0.002 student fatalities per 1,000 tandem jumps over the past decade. In other words, you’re more likely to die from a bee sting than tandem skydiving. For me, knowing this made it a simple case of mind over matter. I didn’t mind, so it didn’t matter.

Of course, this isn’t true for everyone. “There are significant differences among people in fear experience and expression,” says Dean McKay, professor of psychology at Fordham University. “Some point to differences in brain circuitry, where the connections between the ‘old’ areas of the brain responsible for fear are strongly connected to the ‘newer’ brain areas associated with thinking and reasoning.”

In other words, fear is a primal instinct, dating back to when “fight or flight” were our only survival options. Thing is, in modern life, this instinct can debilitate you.

“Approaching a 400-plus-pound bear in the woods should make our brains scream, ‘Get away now!’ ” says Louis Manza, psychology chair at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania. “But our brains also send fear responses for situations like public speaking.” It’s why some people have no problem risking everything on a business venture, while others feel safer doing a 9-to-5 every day — even though they know the potential rewards as an entrepreneur are greater. Ultimately, to experience our full potential, we have to push through our fear — and jump out of the effin’ plane.

I did it, and I’m here to tell you, it’s pretty great. Giddy for about a week, my girlfriend thought so too. Whether it’s skydiving, BASE jumping or public speaking, pushing through fear tends to do that for a person.

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