If you’ll pardon a bad scriptural pun, “lean not” really made a whole lot of sense “unto [mine] own understanding” as I tried not to peer over the lip of the 170 foot cliff I was supposed to rappel down in Moab as a first-timer. Seriously, though—I was standing there, clutching desperately to the rope that everyone assured me would bear up my weight and allow me to scale the sheer wall of sandstone, and all of the veterans kept telling me to lean back, keep my backside low, my legs perpendicular to the rock face.
I wanted to shout to them, “Excuse me, but have you seen how big this drop is? And how thin this rope is? And did you not hear the dozens of times I’ve insisted that I have never ever done this before?” Leaning back contradicted every rule of safety Mom and Dad ever drilled into me. Upon encountering a vertical drop, one ought to scoot away from the edge, not lean toward it and beg gravity to take over. It’s pretty basic stuff. My mind filled with lists of reasons why I should run up to the tree that was serving as the anchor for the rope, unlatch my harness, and book it back to safety.
But instead of ejaculating my protests in exactly the way my mind formed them, I just giggled a lot and made sarcastic jokes and tried to talk myself through it—the top three ways I instinctively indicate fear. And in the meantime all the others just kept instructing me to lean back. They said that the carabiner and belay latched onto my harness would provide friction to prevent me from falling too quickly. They said the guy down below would tighten the rope to stop my descent if I lost control. They said everything would be fine. But first and foremost, I had to lean back, position my body exactly 90 degrees from its normal upright angle, and walk off the edge of the cliff.
It all seemed terribly illogical.
My mind grasped for anything that might make rappelling make sense. Hadn’t I just watched an entire tour group—all newbies except for the experienced guide—lower themselves down the cliff one by one? They’d all gotten down safely. No accidents. No screams. No snapped rope or broken belay. And several members of my own group had also already gone down without incident.
So I knew it was possible. But I really couldn’t see how.
It was too late to change my mind, though. I’m too proud to display so much weakness in front of my peers, and plus, I was already hooked up to the harness, attached to the rope, and standing at the edge. I don’t know that I actually shrugged, since I was trying at that moment to move as little as possible. But I resigned myself to the commitment and took tiny steps backward, leaning into the mouth of the canyon.
I’ll spare you the details of the entire descent. It wasn’t the most graceful rappelling maneuver known to mankind. In fact, the skin between the thumb and pointer finger on my left hand still (over forty-eight hours later) bears the boil-like and still-growing blister from when I let my hand get so close to the belay that it got stuck for an agonizing half-minute between the rope and the metal. This essay will be short because typing hurts too much to permit my typical wordy philosophizing. You’re welcome for the brevity and for not including a picture of my bulbous, pus-filled injury.
But consider this: The fact that I’m writing means that I made it down alive. Actually, I made it down two other cliffs as well on that hiking trip—one 30 foot drop (piece o’ cake), and a 100 foot one that had a glorious view.
Everything that seemed so ridiculous to me now makes much more sense. I don’t pretend to understand everything about rappelling; there’s much to the physics of it that still baffles me as I consider how on earth such minimal equipment could sustain a grown woman for such a long, sheer drop. My mind still can’t quite fully wrap itself around the experience of feeding rope through a small metal trinket as it holds up my wriggling frame in midair. Logically, I don’t entirely understand how anyone could have thought up the sport, or how a fireman’s belay works, or how I convinced myself to take a step off the cliff, leaning back, trusting that I’d be okay just like all the people who went down before me.
All that I know is that it worked. And it worked again and again on that trip. And I actually had fun once I’d gotten my hand out from its pinch in the belay and allowed myself to take a look at the stunning nature that surrounded my dangling body.
Hands-on experience appeased my mind’s demand for logic, although it never fully answered the questions about how or what or why. I learned to lean toward the edge, not away. It made as little ostensible sense as many decisions I’ve had to make in my life, like leaving home for eighteen months to live in Ukraine when I didn’t know the language, or moving to DC to accept an unplanned-for internship, or going to Cambridge for a study abroad that I didn’t think I could afford.
In each of those situations, everything worked out fine—not always terribly gracefully, and not always without an injury or two. But they worked, and I lived, and I actually enjoyed the experiences.
I still have a few chasms to face that seem just as real as the 170 feet of sheer sandstone I scaled in Moab, and I have to hope that I’ll be able to swallow my fear—or at least impulsively giggle and sarcastically joke my way through it—to the point where I can take a step back, forcing myself into all sorts of unreasonable angles. I guess it’s worked before. I’ve seen faith pan out in others’ lives and my own, even under the most illogical of circumstances when it looked like nothing could brake a rapid fall. And there are veterans all around me who have done it themselves, and they swear that everything will be fine. All I need to do is let go of my demand for full comprehension, cling to the ropes, and lean into gaping nothingness. It’s counterintuitive, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work and be worth it. In fact, perhaps the mystery accounts for some of the beauty and thrill of the experience. Perhaps we sometimes have to teeter at the brink of a gap in logic, and lean hard—not unto our own understanding, but against the invisible hand of God, trusting Him to sustain us throughout the descent.