“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.” – Blaise Pascal
So there I was, the leg of my jeans flapping crazily in the wind around my shoe, perched on a narrow step outside the airplane. The roar of the engine and the rush of air making anything but shouts into my ear intelligible. Below me was nothing but a vast amount of air and far, far below the muted, hazy colors of the landscape, crisscrossed with roads.
At this point there was no going back. It was a moment of faith.
My body bowed forward. I was hypnotized by the ground, unable to discern what was what from this altitude. I waited. I felt a tingling of excitement in my chest, knowing that when the word was given I’d be tumbling away from the plane, plummeting at 300 miles per hour toward the ground below.
“I’d never jump out of a perfectly good airplane,” people told me, “Why would you do such a thing?”
It’s a valid question. Jumping out of a plane was never on my bucket list, but a close friend of mine went through a rough divorce and this was part of his healing process. Each month he vowed to do at least one thing to improve himself or get himself outside his comfort zone. So when he asked, how could I turn him down? I can almost hear a chorus of voices saying “easily.”
But some things aren’t so easy to turn away from. It’s easy to say, “Yes, this is the right thing to do,” but frequently harder to actually do the right thing. For me there was no hesitation. I was all in for anything that could help my friend.
Then there I was, months later, in a harness being ratcheted tight enough to force me to walk bow-legged. My daughter was on the sidelines. She knew jumping out of a plane could lead to a very flat daddy and was a little nervous, occasionally asking the “what if” questions about chutes not opening, planes running out of gas and birds attacking like some Hitchcock scene.
I wasn’t nervous at all. To my minds eye I envisioned something akin to sailing like a kite, only windier. Watching others come down before me seemed to bolster this naive view of a gentle glide back down to earth. If only I’d know how wrong my perception was.
I had no reservations when the small, yellow plane was ready for us to board. My friend and his diving guide sardined their way into the back. Tall as I am, it was decided I would jump first. It meant I was seated facing the tail of the plane, my back pressed against the instrument panel.
We took off. I’d been in smaller planes; I’d been in planes that had to have their doors duct taped shut going over the ocean; I’d been in big jets for trans-oceanic flights; but with each creeping moment I never felt so uncomfortable as I did now. My legs were cramped and conversation was limited to shouting over the drone of the engine. I’d occasionally have to bob my head so the pilot could adjust the controls. It seemed like the 20-minute ascent would never end.
Finally, the pilot gave a thumbs up and my guide and I locked hands so he could pull me forward but I was stuck. It was very hard to hear, but I could have sworn he said “Lean back, your harness is pulling on the fuel dump handle.” And that was when I first felt nervous.
Disentangled, I had the dubious task of rolling onto my knees, which seemed about as probable as putting on a shoe three sizes too small. So there I crouched, waiting for the door to open. I was finally being able to see out the plane window at the ground far below. I put my goggles on. Yet still I waited for the door to open, feeling confident my legs were going to fall asleep.
I was sweating, partly from the temperature in the small cabin, partly from the strain of the confined quarters, partly because I felt like my legs really would fall asleep and they’d have to do some emergency tossing me out the plane (a routine I began playing out in my mind that involved my numb body kicked out of the plane by everyone else trapped inside).
Ultimately the door opened. For a brief second I couldn’t get my leg through the opening. “Oh, here it goes,” I thought, but then jerked my knee over the threshold and stepped outside onto the narrow step.
The wind felt wonderful on my sweaty forehead. Much to my surprise, I was happy to be outside, free of the yellow prison and its knobs and gauges that had dug into my back. And there I stood, watching the patchwork of earth far below me, waiting for the word to be given.
And then it was.
And the next few seconds isn’t really a memory. I don’t remember actually separating from the plane. I don’t remember if we turned over during our exit or if we remained flat. Mostly I remember every fiber of my being saying “What the heck are you doing? Have you lost your mind?” It’s as though some animal instinct quickly pushed my brain aside, trying to figure out if there was some way to claw my way back inside the plane and avoid this misstep my rational side had doomed us to.
But then I was back, feeling the air rush over my arms, through my fingers. I was aware of my guide making sure my body was in the proper position. I panned my head to the horizon, looking as far as I could all around me.
And we fell, and we fell.
And we fell more.
And I began to wonder when the chute was supposed to open.
And still we fell. And that nervousness began to creep back.
“Would he try to tell me,” I thought, “if we were really falling to our death or would he stay silent to keep me as calm as possible until I realized what must be going on?”
But then there was the mighty drag slowing us down rapidly. The air around us went from a roar to a breeze and I removed my goggles. I could hear the panicked part of my brain start to say “Well, heck, this is kind of fun.” And, indeed, it was.
Moments later my guide handed me the ropes and I controlled us both as we turned and spun around with the force of a carnival ride. Later, when I reflected on the experience, it was the most similar to an exhilarating roller coaster ride. The buildup as the cars clack and ratchet their way up the first, massive hill and then the impossible twisting and turning drop at breakneck speed.
After sliding on my butt to a safe but grass-stained landing I turned to see my friend was also safely landing. Minutes later my daughter was gleefully racing across the tarmac to jump into my arms.
Some of my friends still look at the experience like it’s the equivalent playing chicken with a train – as though it’s just a matter of when it’ll kill you. But in the months that have passed I’ve found myself considering the nature of faith and this experience was no more a blind leap than most of our encounters with faith. Uncertainty, the possibility of being wrong and misguided confidence can all steer things astray.
I suppose in the end it comes down to what you believe and whether it limits what you do or broadens your life. Personally, I think I found my answer when my daughter said “How old do I have to be before I can skydive?”