There is a West African folktale I love “Fly, Eagle Fly!” about a baby eagle raised among chickens. The eagle walked, ate, played and slept among chickens, but didn’t realize who he was. An aged man in the village understood the eagle was different in size, shape and destiny and twice brought the great bird to various heights, from a rooftop to a small hill, encouraging the eagle to fly.
“You belong not to the earth but to the sky,” he would say, “Fly, Eagle, Fly!” The exercise would inevitably end in calamity: the eagle, terrified, would unceremoniously clamor to the ground, the villagers would laugh uproariously and the old man would go home disappointed. But not deterred. Early one morning, the old man set out on a long journey with the eagle in tow. He made his way to the highest cliff edge on the highest mountains he could find where the air was thin and cold but the vistas, breathtaking. When they reached the top of the cliff, as the golden rays of dawn emerged, the old man whispered, “it’s okay to try but you must flap your wings; you belong not the earth but to the sky; fly, eagle fly!” and sent the eagle into the air.
The eagle had no village earth beneath him, no squawking chickens as a point of reference. No safety net. This time, I doubt it was fear that gripped him, but a heightened focus. His true nature asserted itself and he flew. Majestic wings he didn’t know he had unfurled and a powerful wind he didn’t know he’d love arose, rustled and buoyed him. And he flew. High above the highest heights, as he was meant to, never to return to the village again.
The circumstances we create for ourselves (note active voice) have a tendency to either allow or prevent our true nature from emerging. The eagle was born strong but raised shuffling. It took a cliff edge, the first golden rays of sun and a powerful wind to re-orient him to who he was and compel him to do that which he was built to do: fly, and to do so with majesty, with divine ease. His true nature asserted itself on a cliff edge. I used to suffer from the fear of flight (being in the air), of flying (actively making flight happen) and the performance of flight (in a competition, for example). Tough phobia for a long jumper to have! Weird as it sounds, I found being in the air — any air, from roller coaster air to long jump pit air, intolerable. Being uncertain of how or when to land, having my stomach in my throat even temporarily, feeling that (previously) unfamiliar feeling of total vulnerability and allowing; I hated it. I didn’t tell this to my track coaches. Rather, I’d excel at all flight-related drills (plyometrics) and at short-approach jumps (less speed, more control) and inexplicably, when competitions came around, I’d almost forcibly land.
That was my version of jumps: forced landings. To my team and coaches’ chagrin, the contrast between my leaping ability and performances was striking. I don’t think it was exactly “choking,” that fascinating psychological state of moving routine movements back into the processing area of the brain under stress (competition), and under-performing; though there was certainly an element of that. But perhaps next to that explanation, there was another, simpler one: I was afraid of flying. My sense of who I was, my domain (land versus air) and my true nature was dramatically off.
God-given leaping ability is undeniable. Anyone who sees an athlete with “hops” or "ups," on the basketball court or above the long jump pit, will inevitably say/think something like “wow, they float.” Leaping ability, while it can be improved through training, is fundamentally God-given and the key to a sort of alternate playground, the air! But truly understanding that one belongs to the air — that the air is one’s intended domain, this is what will allow an athlete with exceptional leaping ability to fly. And to delight in their flight.
Perhaps the eagle needed a cliff edge without a safety net, a taste of the golden majesty of dawn and the powerful rumblings of the wind to unlock his true nature; perhaps we all do. “Do not pack a parachute” is a call to radical vulnerability, one of my sister’s favorite phrases. It’s the realization that this state — of complete allowing, of radical vulnerability and of absolute, almost shocking newness, is the key to being completely alive, being precisely who we were built to be, with majesty and divine ease. Put yourself on cliff edges happily and often. For me, cliff edges include flying (actively making flight happen), performing flight (competing), and even seeing patients.
NOTE: This is not a simple “take risks” message. The term “risks” simplifies and dilutes what the cliff edge represents. At the cliff edge, at dawn’s first light, there is a still and expectant moment when streams of beautiful light pierce the horizon, when wind gathers and one feels enlivened by and compelled towards this new domain of adventure, excitement, challenge, reckoning and exploration. “Take risks” may or may not imply “be afraid.” Bringing yourself to the cliff edge mandates a simple decision. Without fear, but with heightened focus, you must decide that in the end, the air is your domain.
My friend Miriam once told me (about jumping) to “go meet God up there.” I’ve always loved that idea and think about it often. What an exciting appointment to book. What an important appointment to honor.