When my daughter invited me to sign up for an aerial fitness class the summer before I turned 55, I didn’t hesitate. Elizabeth, 19, had just spent five months studying abroad. If she was eager to spend time with me, I was happy to comply, even if it meant shimmying up a rope to do crunches.
I am no jock. I am the pudgy oaf who has yet to recover from the trauma of being picked last in elementary school gym class. But my friends and I had been working out with a trainer, which had boosted my confidence. Also, the idea of an aerial class intrigued me: My older sister, who is less pudgy than I but equally oafish, had been taking a silks class for years. If she could do it, so could I.
By the time I called to register, Aerial Fitness was full. The only alternative was Intro to Aerial Acrobatics.
“As long as you can lift your body weight and you’re not afraid of heights, you’ll be fine,” the instructor assured me.
I cannot lift my body weight. I am terrified of heights. I had no business signing up for that class but I’d made a commitment to my daughter and didn’t want to break it.
Yes, I Cried
When I entered the gym the first Saturday in July and saw the trapezes suspended so high above the ground that I’d have to stand on my toes to reach one, I wanted to turn around and run home. As Elizabeth and our eight other classmates (one of whom was older but far more coordinated than I) gleefully did their best Tarzan and Jane imitations, I wondered how I could get my money back.
Sheri, the teacher, read my mind. “I’m sure we can get you a refund,” she said as I wiped away tears.
If I quit what kind of moral authority would I have to encourage my daughter to persevere when she was scared?
For the first time since entering the studio, I almost smiled. Then I imagined Elizabeth despairing that she couldn’t do something or didn’t want to because she was scared or it was hard or not fun. If I quit because aerial acrobatics was hard and I was scared and weak, what kind of moral authority would I have to encourage her to persevere?
Difficulty, fear, and weakness are surmountable obstacles. Not everything we do is fun, but sometimes we have to do things and they make us stronger. Those are words I have spoken to my daughter. That meant I had two choices: Persevere or be a hypocrite.
A few days before the second class, Sheri emailed, saying she’d understand if I didn’t want to come back but hoped I would. She had a solution: a low trapeze, just for me. I emailed back that I’d been doing push-ups before bed every night, trying to strengthen my upper body.
Conquering Something Other Than The Trapeze
I wish I could report that the low trapeze was the gateway drug that turned me into an aerial acrobatics addict and that I am now touring with Cirque du Soleil.
The truth is, I hated the class. Sheri was wonderful and my classmates were kind, but I didn’t look forward to going, and I doubt I’ll do anything like that to myself again. I survived because I adjusted my expectations. There would be no sailing through the air on a flying trapeze for me. I’d signed up for the equivalent of advanced Shakespeare without even knowing the alphabet. If I learned a couple of letters, that would be a triumph.
These, then, are my achievements: I can pull myself onto a low trapeze, wrap a silk around my foot without tipping over, and hang upside down in the silks like a very contented bat.
I did not overcome my fear of heights. I overcame something far more debilitating, something I hadn’t realized was holding me back: Fear of embarrassment. Overcoming that fear was not a conscious decision.
I began focusing on what I could do instead of what all the other students could do better.
It was what happened when I stopped comparing myself to everyone else and began focusing on what I could do instead of what they could do better. It was also what happened when I stopped worrying that I might embarrass my daughter. If she blushed because I was clumsy, that was her problem, not mine.
By the end of the eight-week session, she—and I daresay my fellow classmates—saw me the way I had come to see myself: As someone who refused to give up. It was a point of pride that I, the student-most-likely-to-quit, was the only one with perfect attendance.
That fall, three months after class ended, I did something I’d been thinking about but had avoided doing for years. I enrolled in an adult learn-to-skate class. I’ve already earned my Level 1 ribbon. By spring, when temperatures reached 80 degrees Fahrenheit outside, I was inside the arena, perfecting my one-foot glide and jumping on two feet.
I will keep skating. I look forward to the class in a way I never did with aerial acrobatics. It’s scary sometimes. Falling on ice hurts. But bones mend. Bruises fade. And so does fear, if you let it go.