By all accounts, I am not really very brave.
I hate having my face splashed and really dislike jumping into water. The way it oozes the wrong way up your nose, flattens your hair across your face, the general feeling of panic and not being able to breath… It’s the stuff of my nightmares.
I remember vividly the first time I actually did jump into a swimming pool. Don’t laugh at me – I was 13. I had been so scared all my childhood, and even though I knew it was irrational, I had a fear that no swimming teacher had bested. Apart from this one. My whole class had jumped and swum almost two full lengths. I had hung back to the end of the line, so that I could quietly explain my terror without my whole class hearing it. She was unsympathetic.
‘Don’t be ridiculous’ she said. ‘Even three-year-olds can do this.’
I was rankled enough to want to prove to her that I wasn’t ridiculous, so I turned to the pool, and jumped.
Everything. Slowed. Right. Down.
The edge of the pool was behind me.
The water was beneath me.
I looked up at my teacher to save me.
And then I splashed down into the water.
Obviously I did not die, and for a while I actually got better at swimming. She was a good teacher. But once she’d left and I was a bit older, I used every excuse I could find to get out of going to the local baths on those weekly expeditions. My fear won.
Whenever I’m under pressure or feeling anxious or stressed, I have bad dreams about being under water. Giant waves of tsunami-like proportions overwhelm me. Or worse, I have more realistic dreams, where I’m standing on the edge of the pool, and everyone around me dives gracefully in, and I’m stuck on the spot, watching them swim happily into the distance where they win the competition, or get to the other side, or whatever success in dreamland looks like that particular night.
But the next day, I wake up, and, taking my courage in my hands, face whatever fear in real life shows itself in my dreams as deep water. I’ve not drowned yet.
Jumping into the deep end of Fleetwood baths is not anywhere comparable to bunny hopping off the edge of a platform on a balloon that’s floated you up 24 miles into the Earth’s atmosphere, nothing like jumping off the edge of space. Not at all.
Most people are happy and brave enough to take the risk of jumping into water. But I was thinking about the similarities watching Felix Baumgartner jump. The only man so far who has been brave enough to plan to risk his life in the attempt to break a world record. Millions of people watched him on Sunday, glued to their computer screens. Would the world be slightly different if he succeeded? Was he crazy or just super-brave? If he’d died I’m sure we’d say he was mad. But he didn’t, and so we marvel at his courage.
Courage like Baumgartner’s inspires us to believe that we all have something of that spirit inside of us. If he is human like us, then maybe we can be as brave as him.
Because I don’t believe bravery is just about feats of physical splendour or great exploits. It’s about mental stamina and emotional strength. To reduce courage to something physical is to deny that we all have moments where we summon everything we have and jump.
Whether it’s from the edge of a swimming pool, or the edge of space, or the edge of something else entirely, it takes strength to see what terrifies us, to know that our only choice is between staying frozen to the spot or leaping into the great void of the unknown, and then, with hearts pounding and the feeling that we take our lives in our hands, to leap. There’s a little bit of Felix in each of us.