Sunday, June 03, 2007

25 Feet Above the Ground on an 18-Inch Disk

A few days ago I walked along a forested hillside in a beautiful mountain valley. Although the hillside was quite steep, the hike was relatively easy thanks to the exceptionally built and maintained trail that cut along the hillside. Although most of the boys in the group little appreciated what they were walking on, having done a fair amount of trail building and maintenance, I marveled at the trail quality.

Eventually our guide stopped and had us sit in a nice shady spot on some log benches that had been positioned on the uphill side of the trail. Directly in front of us on the downhill side of the trail was a 25-ft. high utility pole. About halfway up the pole began a series of relatively small U-shaped metal handholds/footholds that protruded from either side of the pole at 4-foot intervals, offset from the holds on opposite side.

At the top of this pole was a disk about 18 inches in diameter that rotated and wobbled from a central bolt. Ten feet away from the top of this platform a trapeze bar dangled from cables suspended high above.

The guide explained to our group that each of us would climb up the pole, stand atop the platform, leap forward, and grasp the trapeze bar. Due to the steep hillside, the trapeze bar was at least 35 feet from the ground below. Conspicuously, there was no netting or anything below other than the natural forest. I looked around at the group of 14- and 15-year-old boys and middle age men sitting on the log benches and thought, “You are out of your mind.”

Our very congenial guide secured a vertical ladder to the lower portion of the pole and rigged up two belay lines that were anchored from opposite sides of the climbing pole. He quickly trained some of us how to belay the lines. Each belay line passed through a very simple device that allowed the rope to pass only slowly, even if the belayer let go of the rope.

Each climber put on a helmet, as well as a harness that reached from the groin to the shoulders. The two belay lines were attached to a loop behind the climber’s neck. But the belay ropes were useful only if the climber fell. They otherwise provided no stability whatsoever.

Kevin, a 14-year-old boy in the group eagerly volunteered to be the first climber. He had little difficulty with the ladder and marginal difficultly climbing the upper pole. Transitioning to the platform was more problematic, but he made it. I had wondered how one would pull that off. He then slowly stood as the utility pole wobbled, and the disk itself rotated and wobbled. He then deftly leaped into the air and grabbed the trapeze bar. Upon instruction from the guide, the boy let go and was lowered to the ground by the belay ropes.

A good example works wonders. My 14-year-old son was next. Although he is large for his age, he is quite acrobatic, so he made the task look easy. Many of the other boys didn’t pull it off the first time, but given the chance to try again, eight of them stood on the platform and six of them caught the trapeze bar.

Then came my turn. I have no unusual fear of heights, but I do have a respect for heights. I had had the benefit of watching others complete the task. I had already seen where they had difficulties and how they dealt with them. That permitted me to formulate strategies for how I would deal with them. I quickly clambered up the ladder and the upper portion of the pole. I was surprised at how easy it was to transition to my knees on the platform. I spent a good 15 seconds standing up and becoming fully upright.

I waited for the pole to stop wobbling so badly. At this point, I chose to ignore everything below the platform. I focused only on the trapeze bar. Over the next few seconds I envisioned myself jumping and grabbing the bar. I refused to permit any other thought to come into my head. And then I jumped. The bar came into my hands just as I had imagined. As I swung there I thought about doing a couple of chin-ups, but I quickly realized that it’s easier to do that from a stationary bar than from one that is swinging. At the guide’s signal, I released the bar and was calmly lowered to the earth.

From this experience I learned a several things. One is that a good example or two can work wonders for others that are trying to accomplish something. A friend explained that he knew of a group of experienced climbers that tried this same feature. Half of them failed, probably because the first guy to try it failed. A bad example is not benign. It accomplishes the opposite of a good example.

Another important point is that accomplishing a task becomes more possible when one ignores extraneous factors and focuses on the task at hand. Once I made the transition to the platform, I knew that the belay ropes would catch me if I fell. I also knew that if the disk was at ground level I would have little difficulty standing on it. Thus, I knew that the fact that the disk was 25 feet above the ground was unimportant, so I ignored it.

Perhaps the most cogent point was the point made by our guide. This climbing/jumping feature exists to prove to people that they can do more than they believe is possible for them. One heavy boy in our group was unable to get to the top of the pole at first. He reached higher on his second try, and finally to the top on his third. Then, on his fourth try, and with a good 20 minutes of trying, he managed to transition to the platform and actually stand up. Something that had seemed impossible two hours earlier had become reality.

We do people a disservice when we coddle them and do not require them to reach deep within themselves to find their true capabilities. Sometimes we steal opportunities as we act with the best of intentions. We sometimes do this as parents. We sometimes do it as managers. We sometimes do it even as church leaders. And we seem to specialize in doing this when we act as government. We rob people of discovering and developing their capabilities and independence when we yank challenges away from them.

I’m not saying that we should leave anyone helplessly twisting in the wind. But our policies — personal and otherwise — should focus on making sure people have the chance to reach their full potential, even if it’s sometimes painful for them to experience — and for us to watch.

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