Before you jump, you can know everything and nothing at the same time.
I had assumptions about skydiving. Almost none of them turned out to be true. I had assumptions about marriage and parenthood too...
Before you jump, it’s easy to think you know all about the big things in life. You watch people do them; they become familiar. You see them on TV, in the movies, in the news; they become commonplace. People around you are constantly doing the things they do until you think you know all about them.
Before you jump, it’s easy to think that the table of contents, the dictionary definition, the executive summary of a thing accurately represents the thing itself. Like the Cliff’s Notes you read in school to get a grade instead of the book that was written to express a life, it’s easy to forget you can know all about a thing without knowing anything of it. You may think you know about things like Moby Dick and marriage, but until you’ve been lashed to the whale of your obsessions alongside Ahab or perched on a pile of anniversaries high enough to see the broad contours of your family’s life, your theories remain untested; your assumptions invalid.
Skydiving is like this, like the big things in life. Maybe it has to do with the falling—like falling in love or taking a fall or falling down drunk, there is a laying aside, a laying open, an intensity and abandon, a point of no return that can’t be communicated in anything but the first person.
Before you jump, you can know everything and nothing at the same time.
I arrived at the Perris Valley Skydiving Center early in the morning. There were many of us. We all crunched through the dirt and gravel of the parking lot in cars of every make and color; people of every make and color covertly watching each other flow toward the pair of single-wide mobile homes serving as offices for the Center. Herded inside, we were seated in front of a large TV monitor, welcomed in cheerful tones, and told to watch the screen. A fifteen-minute presentation detailed everything that could possibly go wrong with a jump: landing in water, landing in power lines, chute failures, and the worst nightmare: getting tangled in the lines of your own chute so you couldn’t cut it away and pull the reserve. Feet were shuffling through this, some sideways glances to check a friend’s reaction.
At the end of the presentation, a lawyer for the Center appeared on the screen seated at his desk in a suit telling us how we needed to perfectly understand the risks we were about to take: how we were doing this of our own free will, taking full responsibility for all the things that could happen to us—death, dismemberment, paralysis—and how we would be legally holding the Center harmless for any such unfortunate circumstances aforementioned. He described the legal waiver of liability that we would be signing as a live staff member passed them out, telling us to read carefully. Another staff member brought out a video camera on a tripod and aimed it at us, telling us to stand and read the terms of the waiver out loud, while the little red light recorded against such time as any of us or our heirs should decide to disagree. We read, we signed, we walked back out onto the dirt a bit quieter than we went in.
I had signed up for an accelerated freefall, or AFF as it appeared in the brochure, which meant I would not be strapped to a jumpmaster, but would fall with two jumpmasters on either side holding my legstraps until I pulled the cord and was on my own for the rest of the jump. An AFF required a full eight hours of training on the ground before making the jump at the end of the day, so I and the other AFFers made our way to a permanent building near the mobile homes to find our classroom.
Our instructor must never have gotten tired of watching each first-timer walk into his classroom and register the look of shock none of us could conceal as we realized he only had one leg. He wasn’t the least bit shy about it. This was no human-like prosthesis trying to look like a limb—his left pant leg was cut off at mid-thigh to fully expose a spring-loaded shock absorber, a metal and rubber pogo stick attached to his stump. All he needed was a parrot and an eye-patch.
He savored the moment until we were all seated around him. “The first thing I want you to know is that I didn’t lose my leg skydiving.” The laughter came out a bit too fast and high-pitched, but no one left, so we began. Throughout the day, we learned all about jumping out of planes over two miles off the ground and the gear that would let us live to tell about it. We learned about the aerodynamics of a falling leaf and how to mimic that, spread-eagled with our backs arched; about terminal velocity, that we would not be falling any faster than around 120 miles per hour—not much comfort there. We learned about the gear, the parachutes and how they were packed, about the reserve chutes and how they were packed by a certified packer who put his or her lead seal on each pack, and about how they would lose their reputation and certification if their chute failed and we died. “Their reputation, your life,” was I think how pegleg put it.
We learned about altimeters and the circle of awareness that would take us though freefall and prepare us to safely open our chutes. We learned about what to do if something went wrong: if we landed in water or in power lines or trees, if our main chute was damaged or tangled, or if we got tangled in our own lines. (Mostly we just learned not to let that happen.) We learned about how we were going to time our jump with our jumpmasters—one, two, three, jump—and how to fly ourselves in for a landing: how to work the toggles to turn and brake, find the landing strip, the windsock, make our first pass with the wind and our final pass against it; to “flare” just before landing, bringing both toggles down at the same time to brake and step gracefully back on the ground. We learned all about skydiving, got all the information we needed, thoroughly and professionally delivered. The only thing left was to go and be fitted for our gear, so we filed back out onto the dirt and into a big barn of a room lined with jumpsuits and helmets and goggles and packs.
And all day long I was feeling it in my stomach and chest. From the lawyer in the suit to the instructor on the peg to the images of disaster to the approaching reality of an open door and a lot of air, it grew stronger down there, filling me with questions of whether I was really going through with this, whether I would really get on board the plane, really let go and just fall. It sat on my chest as I found a jumpsuit that fit, a helmet, goggles—as pegleg helped me into a pack like a gentleman with a lady’s coat, except for the legstraps part. It followed me out to the airstrip, waited with me as I watched the King Air land empty, its passengers all having abandoned it, and climbed with me into the bare fuselage.
There were so many of us inside—each jumper with two jumpmasters and some with a videographer as well—we sat spread-legged on the curved and seamed bottom of a metal tube, inside the legs of the person behind with the pack of the person in front pressed against our chests. There was no door, just an opening in the side of the fuselage as the engines whined up to speed. For the first time that day, there was nothing to do but sit and wait as we taxied, as we lifted off and climbed to our target altitude, as cold metal seeped through the backside of jumpsuits and orange afternoon sun in the shape of small windows played across our little space when the King Air banked into position.
I looked down over the two rows of helmets in front of me wondering what was going on inside each of them when suddenly I thought of D-Day, of how I’d learned about the paratroopers as a kid, reading and rereading all the stories I could find about their nighttime jump behind enemy lines before the beach assault began. I thought about the rows of helmets in those dark planes and with my new insight, wondered what they had been feeling as they prepared to jump. Not into the warm sunlight of inland California, but the pitch-blackness of wartime France; not into the waiting arms of their jumpmasters with everything in the air and on the ground designed for safety, but into the guns and knives of the Nazis, with everything in the air and on the ground designed to kill. Anything I was feeling, anything I was experiencing, could only remind me of the impossibility of ever really knowing what those boys felt as their planes climbed into position in the dark. Before I jumped, I had the luxury of ignorance, of believing my reading and study had really taken me there. Before I jumped, I thought I knew. Now I knew more—and less at the same time.
I heard my name and it was time. I struggled to my feet and picked my way over legs and riveted metal seams to the opening with all that air behind it. I stood in the wind holding on to the edges waiting for my jumpmasters to get into position. From 12,500 feet, the ground looked like a painting, not real at all; it looked as flat and dimensionless as any movie or TV image, but my lunch was at the base of my throat—that was different as I got the signal to count: one, two...but suddenly I couldn’t remember if we jumped on three or after three, and as I pushed off I realized I was alone.
And there was this incredible rush of air but I couldn’t breathe it, couldn’t exhale enough to get any more in. I’d really done it, I’d set in motion a sequence of events that would end on the ground one way or another—either in a graceful step under a bright canopy or at 120 miles an hour. I’d done it, and there was no way to take it back. There was only me and two miles of air and a nylon bedsheet on my back that would make all the difference.
Suddenly my jumpmasters were back with me, both their faces lowering into view on either side. They shouted instructions in my ears as we went through the circle of awareness and checked the big altimeter strapped on my chest. We were ready; we’d done all we could do until the dial read five thousand and it was time to pull.
They told me to enjoy the ride.
Falling together in perfect unison isn’t like falling at all. I assumed freefall would be like a roller coaster, the heart-in-throat squeeze into the back of my seat all the way down, but it was like that only for those first few breathless seconds of acceleration. As I opened into the falling leaf shape and gravity and air pressure stabilized, I could have been sitting in a living room with my two new friends over tea; there was no sense of motion at all—except for the 120-mile-an-hour wind in my face. It was more like flying, like hovering, like the giddy freedom of all those air dreams. I could see the whole Perris Valley from end to end, the string of mountains beneath the lowering sun, the flat valley floor, lined and patched, directly below. It seemed static, frozen, as if we hovered above, until I noticed that objects on the ground were slowly getting larger—slowly, like the hands on a clock. It seemed so slight, so benign, but sobering too.
Then there was shouting in my ears. I looked at the altimeter and it was already at five thousand, but I blinked at it for another second or two as the shouting continued realizing that I had been so completely immersed in the ride that I had forgotten about the passage of time or altitude. I had forgotten about the circle of awareness and the meter on my chest. I had even forgotten to be afraid.
All day long I had been afraid, even though all day long I’d had a choice. I could have said no to the lawyer or the one-legged instructor. I could have walked back to my car from the fitting barn or from the steps of the King Air. Even as long as I was clinging to the edge of that hole in the fuselage, I still had a choice to go or not, and as long as I had a choice, I also had fear. In a way I hadn’t assumed, it was the choice itself that created and maintained the fear I felt. What if I made the wrong choice? What if my choice led to disaster? Or shame and regret? At the beginning of the day, I’d had many choices, but all day long through the hours of training and preparation, those choices had been falling away, one by one, with the passage of time and the path taken until I stood at the edge with only one choice left: to simply let go and let fall, or not.
And with just the relaxing of my fingers, even that last choice fell away leaving nothing left to cling to in an ocean of rushing air. There was no awareness of time or concern or even my own thoughts—nothing left but the ride and a meter reading five thousand feet. I pulled the cord, felt the violent tug at my legstraps as the two faces at my left and right shot straight down out of sight. Alone again, I looked up as I was trained to do, and my canopy was big and orange and perfectly filled with air. Everything had gone suddenly silent. There seemed not to be a breath of wind as, instead of falling through it, I was being gently ushered along with it. I reached up to grab the toggles and ride my sail home.
Before I jumped, I could never have imagined the impact of hanging from slender white threads and watching the tops of my boots suspended above a mile of nothing but silent space. Before I jumped, I would never have assumed my boots would be my most lasting image, the one I can still see through closed eyes from a distance of over fifteen years. Before I jumped, I could never have told you about the feeling of total release and liberation—forgiveness, even—from a day of constant fear.
As long as I had one last thing to cling to, I had a choice. As long as I had one last thing to cling to, I was afraid. As long as I had a choice, a decision to make, I could fail. But with the letting go, with the last thing left to hold on to receding into a deep sky, there was nothing left to do but what I already knew how to do, what I was trained to do—and to enjoy the ride. As soon as I let go and left all my choices behind, I wasn’t afraid anymore.
Before I jumped, I couldn’t have told you any of this, and before you jump, you’ll never really know what I mean.
We’re all skydivers. We’re all skydiving.
Right now, this moment, we’re freefalling. I’m falling, you’re falling, and since we’re all falling together in unison, we’re not aware; there’s no sense of motion. But if we stop and really focus on the objects around us, we can see them slowly growing larger and marking our passage. From the moment of birth, from the moment we were pushed out of our mother’s fuselage, we’ve been falling ever since—a series of events set in motion that will end at the moment of our death, no matter what we do or how we feel about it. The commitment was made without our permission, the point of no return crossed. One way or another, the ground of our death is coming up to meet us and the only choice we have is how to meet it back: in a graceful step under a bright canopy or kicking and screaming at 120 miles an hour.
But if only it were that easy. To stretch it further, it’s as if we’ve been pushed out of our plane in the blackness of night from an unknown altitude with no altimeter—we don’t know the height from which we started and can’t see the ground at which we’ll stop. How long will we fall? Sixty or seventy years? Thirty years? Until the end of the day? It’s the unknowing that does it to us. It’s the unknowing that makes informed choices impossible and the search for clarity a cruel joke. It’s the unknowing that scares us. It scares us so much that most of us choose to live without making a choice, choose to live as if still standing at the open door, trembling under the weight of all those unmade choices.
But we’re already out the door and falling—have been falling for as long as we’ve been alive. Continuing to live as if we’re still clinging to the door of our plane is illusion, self-deception. We’re living the anxiety, tension, and fear of trying to make a choice that has long been made, in the doorway of a plane that is long gone, landed and in the hanger, the pilot home having dinner.
The mind is a powerful thing: the reality we believe is the reality we endure.
If we believe our choice is yet unmade and that we’re still standing at the door, then we will experience our lives as if frozen there: waiting, wondering, searching, clinging, fearing everything and enjoying nothing right until the moment we rush headlong into the ground we didn’t see coming. Ready or not, the ground doesn’t care what we believe; it’s out there in the dark, coming at us at 120 miles an hour. We can’t enjoy the ride until we realize that we’re already freefalling, have always been, that the choice to jump was never ours to make. Accepting the fact of our falling, making friends with that central fact of life comes well before we can ever learn to like it. How do you fight freefall anyway? By pretending there’s one last thing in our grasp to cling to? By praying it away?
And what is the most common prayer we pray? “Lord, please put me back in the airplane...” Of course it’s not voiced that way, but that’s exactly what we mean when we feel ourselves falling and ask God to change our circumstances, to stop the ride, to undo what’s been done to us, to undo what we’ve done to ourselves or to do what we’ve left undone. Yeshua sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if it’s possible, take this cup away from me...” Stop the world, I want to get off. If you thought Yeshua was immune to the pain and fear we all feel, think again, but moving through it, he reconnects with his Father’s deepest purpose and pushes off, “...not my will, but yours...” freely falling again. Paul praying for years for God to remove the thorn in his side, to take away the pain, the irritation, the frustration of whatever it was that kept him awake at night and dampened his dreams. But then at the end of his life awaiting execution in a Roman prison, he pens some of the most beautiful and hopeful verses in all of Scripture. Pushed off, a graceful falling leaf.
The second most common prayer? “Lord, if you won’t put me back in the plane, at least show me the ground.” We call this a prayer for clarity, wisdom, or discernment; it sounds noble and looks good on paper, but all we really want is someone to tell us exactly what to do, to figure it all out, remove all the unknowns and risk before we make the first move to relax our grip.
Brennan Manning tells a wonderful story in his book, Ruthless Trust:
When the brilliant ethicist John Kavanaugh went to work for three months at “the house of the dying” in Calcutta, he was seeking a clear answer as to how best to spend the rest of his life. On the first morning there he met Mother Teresa. She asked, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him.
“What do you want me to pray for?” she asked. He voiced the request that he had borne thousands of miles from the United States, “Pray that I have clarity.”
She said firmly, “No, I will not do that.” When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”
What is the last thing you are clinging to?
Whatever it is, however noble or important it may seem, it is the last thing keeping you imprisoned, keeping you from flight. It is the last thing keeping you afraid and the first thing you must let go of.
At one time or another, we all think clarity is the answer, but it’s just the edge of another door in the sky, something to cling to, a reason to procrastinate, to forestall what we already know how to do. We cling to clarity as the only means by which we can make the right choice—as if there’s only one choice that is right, that will take us to the right destination—as if there’s only one destination that is right. We keep all our choices safe in the pockets of our jumpsuits, waiting on the clarity that will remove the risk of letting go and letting fall. But clarity never comes in the way we expect and risk is never removed; there is only the moment that we choose to act as if there is clarity, as if there is no risk—to trust our training and our gear and the people telling us we can survive all this. Or not.
As important as our choices may be, it’s making a choice that is essential, and any choice is better than trembling at the door of the King Air. What is the last thing you are clinging to? It’s the very thing keeping you fearful, afraid to fall away and begin enjoying the ride.
Looking from the outside in, the person who trusts looks serene. The person who trusts always seems to have the clarity we long for, the assurance of their choices, the facts at their disposal, the unfair advantage of a peek behind the curtain. But trust doesn’t work from the outside in any more than Kingdom, and from the inside out, from his or her point of view, the person who trusts has no more clarity than we’ve got—no more facts or figures or assurances, no better view of distant objects or the immediate future. They make their choices just as we do, weighing whatever risk is present and whatever partial information is available against their passions and desires and whatever seems best.
The difference is that they know they are already falling and not clinging to the door of the plane; that no choice they make can change their ultimate trajectory, only the quality of their fall; and somehow they know their sail will open, big and orange above them, and that they’ll be stepping gracefully to the ground at the end of their ride. With the big choice already made, little choices can be negotiated with lightness and a smile and the enjoyment that attracts brilliant ethicists halfway around the world to the door of a tiny woman living in the worst part of Calcutta.
Trust has nothing to do with clarity; those with the least clarity, the children and children-at-heart among us, have the most trust. Richard Foster writes in his foreword to Ruthless Trust,
When our children were young I would sometimes rise early on a Saturday morning and fix them pancakes for breakfast. It was all great fun—the broken eggs, the spilt milk, the batter and the chatter. They loved pancakes—even my pancakes—and they would wolf them down quickly. I would often watch in astonishment at their greedy eating. Not once did I see either of them slipping a few pancakes under the table, stuffing them in their pockets thinking, “I don’t know about Dad. Maybe there won’t be any pancakes tomorrow and so I’d better get myself a little stash just in case.” Not once did they ask me about the price of eggs or my ability to secure enough milk for tomorrow. No, as far as they were concerned there was an endless supply of pancakes. They lived, you see, in trust.
Trust has nothing to do with effort either; trust is the effortless result of the experience of trustworthiness. My daughter would often ask me for my car keys while I was working at the church, wanting to get something out of the car or just as an excuse to go exploring. Not being born yesterday, I knew what happened to keys in the hands of eight or nine-year-olds, so I’d always say no, and walk with her out to the parking lot. After one too many interruptions, I thought for a second, pulled her over and gave her the long lecture about keys and responsibility, after which she still had to pull them from between my fingers leaving me to watch her and my keys move out of sight as if for the last time. But the keys came right back, so next time, she got the keys with a mini-lecture, then with just a stern, reminder-look, and eventually, she’d just shout at me, “Dad, keys,” and I’d toss them across the room in mid-stride.
No amount of effort on earth could make me trust my daughter, but once I experienced her trustworthiness, no amount of effort was needed. I just had to have enough faith in her to take the first step, the initial risk. I had to push off from my fears and fall with her for a while before I could relax and begin to enjoy the ride. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God,” but when we forget that faith in Scripture is never separated from trust, we make the mistake of thinking that faith—acting in spite of risk and doubt—is the goal, the end product. Faith is only the means to the end of trust, of falling with God to experience his trustworthiness.
“Faith without works is dead,” but we make the mistake of thinking that the works of faith are the good deeds we do that prove our faith. That’s much too close to earning our faith, much too close to legalism, and much too far from the truth that makes us free. The work of faith, the proof that faith is alive and kicking, is trust. Effortless trust. Smiling trust. Trust with a smooth brow and a steady gaze.
The work of faith is not what we do through our own effort, but what comes effortlessly to us as we move out in spite of the risks. When we effortlessly find ourselves tossing our keys to God, casually releasing the last thing we are clinging to, our faith has graduated to trust, and we are freely falling.
And the choice made, the falling acknowledged, what then? What do we feel, experience, know? Is there a sudden rush of clarity and insight filling us at 120 miles an hour? A constant euphoria and sense of peace? The removal of all our problem circumstances?
At Kings 19, Elijah is in despair, fearing for his life and hiding in a cave unable to make his next move. He hears a great wind tearing into the mountain, but the Lord is not in the wind. There is an earthquake, then a fire, but he knows the Lord is not in these great signs either. It’s when he hears a soft blowing, a breath at the back of his awareness, that he wraps his face in his mantle and goes out to fall with God.
We all have assumptions about trust.
From the outside in, from the airplane or the ground, trust looks huge and spectacular—like courage or clarity, faith or piety, knowledge or even foreknowledge—so we assume it is. But from the inside out, from inside that helmet looking out through those scratched and worn goggles, it’s a very slight thing, easy to overlook, even easier to dismiss. It changes nothing and everything: nothing of circumstance or risk, but everything of our ability to move out, off, through, and over. It is the tiniest stirring that allows us to act in spite of all our fears, to start rolling, like a snowball, gathering more assurance the longer we fall.
Once more from Brennan Manning:
Ruthless trust is an unerring sense, way deep down, that beneath the surface agitation, boredom, and insecurity of life, it’s gonna be all right. Ill winds may blow, more character defects may surface, sickness may visit, and friends will surely die; but a stubborn, irrefutable certainty persists that God is with us and loves us in our struggle to be faithful. A nonrational, absolutely true intuition perdures that there is something unfathomably big in the universe, something that points to Someone who is filled with peace and power, love and undreamed of creativity—Someone who inevitably will reconcile all things in himself... Thus it may mean more to Jesus when we say, “I trust you,” than when we say, “I love you.”
How much easier is it to say, “I love you” than “I trust you?” We say we love all the time, but what does it cost? What does it mean? How do we prove it? What are the risks? But to say I trust you, means we have an experience, a history; we have risked something, put ourselves on the line. It means we have the scars and the x-rays to show for our time in the field of our lives. “I love you” can be said at any time, for any reason, but “I trust you” only comes after falling together, knowing together.
When we fall with God, we leave our assumptions behind and begin to know, to yida, his complete trustworthiness. We don’t get all the answers or clarity or removal of risk, but we do get enough of a sense of security to take the next step—and the next. Trust doesn’t change the circumstances of our lives, but it changes the perception of those circumstances. It puts them into a perspective that allows us to begin to enjoy ourselves however difficult they may be.
“I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.” Writing from his prison cell, Paul is saying to the Philippians and to us that he had learned to make friends with life—not to keep trying to wish or pray it into a shape of his liking, but to begin to like the shape it had. It didn’t happen overnight; life is often not likable enough that we would ever want to be its friend. But it happened for Paul as he continued to fall: at some point he reached out, introduced himself and shook hands with life, accepted it on its own terms, and began to enjoy the ride.
What’s the last thing you’re holding on to and need to let go of? Clarity? Wisdom? Knowledge? Faith? Power? Money? Talent?
Relax your grip. Let it go. Push off. Fall away.
Can you remember being ten years old during the long, hot summers that seemed to go on forever between the books and clocks of school and before big boy or girl pressures set in? Go there. Right now. Be ten years old again, in your swimsuit, the afternoon sun hot on your skin as you run around your friend’s swimming pool. Add your shouts and squeals to all those around you, add your energy and motion to the chaotic scene. Can you see it? The brilliant sunlight shimmering off the water, the colorful swimsuits and brown skin, the constant motion and water slopping over the sides? It’s all there as you drink it in, watching the scene and becoming part of it as you run to the edge of the pool turning to face away, your back to the water. Wet toes curling around the concrete lip turn white as you grip there, heels out over the water. You hold your arms out straight from shoulder height, sparkling drops clinging as you tilt your head back and close your eyes.
Last time you looked, the pool was filled with shimmering blue water. Last time you looked, your friends all bobbed around the edges watching you with expectant smiles. You believe the water is still there, that the scene remains exactly as it did the last time you looked, and that the water will catch you and shock you and thrill you when you fall back into it. The last time you looked, you believed all this—you believe it now. But you won’t know that your belief has turned to faith until you push down with your toes, feel your center of gravity shift backwards in that dizzy tilt, and know that the line has been crossed, and there’s no turning back.
And you fall. Slowly at first, gaining speed through those heart-stopping moments as you wait for it to come—the cold, hard slap against your back, the sinking down into coolness, springing back up from the bottom to break the surface into sunshine and laughter as you shake your head, wipe your eyes, and scan the ring of faces around you.
There is a breath, a moment filled with wide eyes and dripping noses. It’s the moment you finally know, but won’t recognize for some time, that your faith has graduated to trust. It’s the moment you break for the sides and yell to your friends over your shoulder,
“Let’s do it again!”
The goal of spiritual practice is clarity;
the more we understand, the more we trust.
Mental effort has nothing to do with trust;
repeated experience alone creates the sense of risk-free-ness we call trust.