I am terrified of heights. Climbing to the top of a telephone pole three stories tall in the Arizona desert is not my idea of a good time. It didn't help much that I would be wearing a helmet--a three-story drop is a three-story drop, no matter what you've got on your head. It should have helped that I'd be wearing a safety cable, but that made no difference either. If you know anything about how the brain works, you know that what you understand in your reasoning lobes and what you feel in your emotional lobes are two very different things. And when it came to the idea of standing atop a swaying, creaking pole with the desert floor swimming below, my emotional lobes won in a landslide.
I had gone to Arizona with a crew from The Dr. Oz Show and a group of 50 women who had been offered a surprise trip and were taken directly from the studio in New York during the taping because they desperately wanted to make changes in their lives. Maybe one wanted to quit smoking; maybe another wanted to lose weight or exercise more or go back to school or get out of a lousy job. The point is they were stuck, rooted between the world of "I know I should do this" and the world of "I'm actually doing it"--a place where many of us can spend a lot of fruitless and frustrating time.
The three-story pole was a three-story metaphor. Take a step forward--or actually a step straight up--in Arizona and maybe we could all take other, even scarier steps elsewhere in our lives. I was paired with Pam, a 33-year-old IT worker from Long Island who had been obese as a child and hasn't wanted to be singled out since for fear of embarrassment. So in the spirit of taking the counterintuitive step, she agreed to go first and be singled out for a very positive reason. I stood at the bottom of the pole, watching her go up and dreading the moment when she would reach the tiny platform at the top, which was big enough for only two, because that would mean I had to go. When I began the climb, it was just what I expected, by which I mean the whipping wind and the receding ground and my sweaty palms on the rungs were just awful. But there was a power in enduring that awfulness.
Pam shouted down encouragement, and as I neared the little platform, she reached out, took my hand and helped me take the final step. My real fear, it seemed, had not been of heights but of lack of control. Trusting Pam was the antidote. I flung an arm around her in a celebratory hug. The climb may have been terrible, but completing it was sublime.
You Know You Should
There's a strange, discordant pathology to the state of being stuck. Nobody who starts smoking plans to be hooked for life. Nobody who's obese secretly wants to stay that way. When a doctor or family member pleads with us to make lifesaving changes, we mean it when we say, "I know, I know, I should. I will." What's left unsaid is the killer caveat: "Just not today."