Fear and courage: Who will catch me when I fall?

There are days when everything goes right
When the bus arrives just as we reach the stop
When the rain holds off until we reach our destination
When we smile and everyone smiles back
On such days we can be strong
We can be of support to those who missed the bus, got soaked in the storm, and got scowls in return for warmth
May the light of this flame reveal to us all those who need our strength today
And may it call them to us when the roles are reversed
May this light bring care to all.



Extract from “Touching the Void” by Joe Simpson

Joe Simpson and Simon Yates have been building up to climb the daunting unclimbed west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. 

For two whole days we gorged ourselves on food and sunshine, preparing for the West Face. I began to feel spasms of fear now that we were committed to Siula in the next fine weather window. What if something went wrong? It wouldn’t take much to kill us off. I saw how very much alone we had chosen to be and felt small. Simon chuckled when I mentioned my worries. He knew the cause, and probably felt the same tension inside. It was healthy to be a little scared, and good to sense my body responding to the fear. We can do it, we can do it . . . I kept repeating like a mantra whenever I felt that hollow hungry gap in my stomach. It wasn’t false bravado.
Psyching up for it, getting ready to make the final move, was always a difficult part of preparation for me. Rationalisation, some people called it – bloody frightened seemed a better description, and more honest


Extract from “Your confusion is not pathology, it is path” by Matt Licatta

“Your sadness, your loneliness, your fear, and your anxiety are not mistakes. They are not obstacles on your path. They are the path. The freedom you are longing for is not found in the eradication of these, but in the information they carry. You need not transcend anything here, but be willing to become deeply intimate with your lived, embodied experience. …Nothing is missing, nothing is out of place, nothing need be sent away.”         

Message, by Penny Walker

My name is Penny Walker and I’ve been a member of the congregation for about six years.

As some of you know – because I’ve spoken about it in ‘joys and sorrows’ - in the last couple of months I have taken up climbing again, after a break of about ten years. 

It’s exciting.

The atmosphere at the indoor climbing centre I go to is upbeat, dynamic, friendly.  

When you hire out a carabiner and belay device - the small, beautifully engineered bits of metal which could save your life - the heavily pierced man in the hire shop will accept an RSPB membership card instead of a credit card as a deposit.  It’s that kind of place. The background music is familiar and chosen to make you smile: ABBA, early 80s pop, 70s funk. 

There are cheerfully written signs dotted around to point you to the café, yoga room and organic garden as well as to the more challenging ‘Stack’ and ‘Catacombs’ – fancifully named climbing walls.  Notices tell you that dogs are welcome, outside of peak times, but must not be tied to the safety equipment.  

There are people whose job it is to set routes that you climb on the walls.  They bolt on the brightly coloured artificial ‘holds’ in carefully planned patterns that allow for all levels: starting at an easy peasy grade 3 and carrying on right up to a surely impossible 8a.  They include tricky little challenges that you have to puzzle out and then implement – can I really get my foot that high and then push down on my hand to shift my weight on it? 


But don’t be fooled by the jollity and bright colours.  12 metres up is still 12 metres up, even if the holds you are balanced on look like spotted turtles or alien jellies. 

I climb tied to a rope which runs from my harness through a metal chain fixed at the top of the wall, then drops back down to the bits of metal secured via another harness to my climbing partner.  This is known as “top roping” and the act of holding and carefully taking in the rope - which the non-climber does - is called ‘belaying’.  Your belay is the person in charge of making sure the rope will save you. Don’t worry, there is more to this message than a lesson in climbing terminology!

If you climb this way, with a partner who is your belay, there’s something a bit funny – in fact, a bit alarming - that I’ve been taught to do at the beginning of a session. When you have climbed up high enough that your feet are above your belay’s head – around two metres - you are supposed to fling yourself from the wall, without warning the belay.

Why would you do that? 

You fling yourself from the wall to prove to you both, the climber and their partner, that they will hold you.And the beautiful symmetry of the partnership means that as soon as you are back on solid ground and have wiped the sweat off your hands onto your trousers, you swap over and belay your partner as they make their way up the route they have chosen. You can also climb without a partner. 

It’s not just humans who might stop the rope slithering through, halting your rapid descent and leaving you swinging gently instead of writhing in agony on the floor.  

Where I climb, there are also automatic belay devices – simple mechanisms which take up the slack rope for you and, like a car safety belt, stop you if you fall.  

So the thing keeping you safe when you climb – actually, keeping you safe when you fall - might be a person or it might be something else.  You test it just the same.  You fling yourself off the wall from a relatively safe position. 

I am afraid of heights and I am especially afraid of falling.  Both those fears magnify a third fear – I am afraid of not being in control.

Even a couple of metres off the ground, I really don’t want to fling myself from the wall.  My palms sweat.  My feet - already in a gripping shape due to the tight, tight climbing shoes - curl further inwards in a reflex reaction to the very thought of falling.  They are trying to grasp the footholds.  I psych myself up and chicken out. 

We fling ourselves from the wall at a safe height, so that we can be sure of being safe when we need to make a truly risky move twelve metres up.

So here’s the wider lesson. 

In my life, I have put off doing some things that I really want to do, for fear of how bad it will feel if I fail.  I am afraid of the shame, the crushing of my self-confidence, the public humiliation. 

Your fears may be different. These are mine and I suppose they must be very precious to me because I still cling on to them after all this time. 

What’s enabled me to go ahead and do the exciting things anyway – including just in this last year - is my previous experience of coming back from failure and from the excruciating shame I feel when I think I have failed.

This fear of failing is strong stuff. Even the anticipation of that shame is really powerful too.  I don’t have to actually fail, to feel the shame.  I just have to imagine it happening. In fact my palms are sweating now!

I have lately come to accept that I will feel bad while I contemplate and plan my daring actions. I will fall off the wall.  I still feel bad – I haven’t learnt to avoid the fear, and I’m not sure I ever will.  It’s more that I now see it as the price I pay for doing something really cool.  

I know that feeling bad is temporary.  I have strategies for feeling better again.  Coming here and being with this community is one.  When I fall, and I do, I am caught.  

I’m on the climbing wall.  My belay partner is relaxed and ready.  They have done this before, they trust the ironmongery and the rope.  They trust me.  They want me to experience the exhilaration and triumph of beating the challenge from the fiendish route-setter, of getting to the top.   

And yet, and yet….

OK, this is it. If I wait any longer, my pretend fall won’t be enough of a surprise to test the team.  
I reach for a hold with my arm, pushing away from the wall with my legs at the same time.  I’m airborne and falling for a split second, before the rope goes taut and I’m jerked to a stop. 
And breathe. 

A few minutes later, I’m 12 metres up, stretching for a hold I can’t quite reach, but launching towards it anyway because - what’s the worst that could happen? I’m no gecko, but knowing I’m roped up to someone, or something, that will catch me means I’ve definitely left the grade 3 routes behind. In fact, if I’d never fallen and been caught, I never would have made it beyond beginner graded climbs.

In our lives, we can all be climbers. We can all take practice falls.  We can all belay for someone else. 

Life is full of falling
Climbing and falling and climbing again
Let us be caring catchers for those who fall
And may there always be gentle hands to ease our own falls
So that all may have the courage to climb again