I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center. ~ Kurt Vonnegut
Ever been on the edge? I mean really out there, right at the precipice, with your toes hanging over and the dirt crumbling and falling, bouncing its way down, down, down until you lose sight of where it lands? The kind of place where you feel mortality’s stranglehold around your neck as you consider, with a clarity akin to a perfectly focused photograph, the distance to the bottom? Where your stomach drops and your senses heighten and you find yourself, with a blinding flash of terror, leaning forward before you jerk yourself back to reality?
No? Would you like to? It’s a killer view. I understand, though. It’s scary. But it’s also exhilarating and expansive.
My husband once visited the Grand Canyon with his parents. As he leaned over the edge to gaze at the amazing view, he was dismayed to discover his mother’s firm grip on his belt – ever protective as parents are. He was 19.
I recalled that story a few years ago when we visited Death Valley. In the pre-dawn air, we scaled (via car) Dante’s View, one of the highest peaks in the Black Mountains, just so we could watch the sun rise. As we waited that cold October morning, the sun inexorably moved, inch by inch, down the mountainside opposite us until it had spread its eerie glow more than 5,000 feet to Badwater Basin on the valley floor – 282 feet below sea level. Ever the adventurer, Charlie scrambled up a mountain goat path to a small outcropping of rock at the absolute top. There he stood, 5,475 feet above Death Valley, watching the world awaken.
Unlike his mother, I let him go.
It’s no doubt easier to let an adult you had no role in raising walk to the edge than it is to let one you were responsible for bringing into the world do that very thing. But it may be just the thing we must be willing to do.
Come to the edge, he said. They said: We are afraid. Come to the edge, he said. They came. He pushed them and they flew. ~ Guillaume Appolinaire
The edge. Whether we walk willingly or find ourselves dragged there, thanks to circumstances in our lives, the edge is very real. And while it’s frightening and sometimes dangerous, it’s also the jumping off place for new beginnings, amazing growth, and mind-blowing awareness. Screwing up our courage and sidling up to the edge is how we keep ourselves from becoming stuck and provincial. It’s how we learn to see, to envision. It’s how we test our wings and how we discover that, yes, we can. The edge is where we overcome and venture forth.
And here’s the secret: those who stand on the edge are no less fearful than those who stand back, hands flung protectively across their eyes. Curiosity, a search for meaning, a quest has driven them. Regardless of their path to the edge, there’s no contentment to be had with gazing at the tops of mountains while imagining the view of the valleys below. Embracing the edge requires us to recognize and acknowledge the fear, yet still look so we might soar.
Whether the path plays tricks and abandons you at the edge or whether curiosity compels you forward, try this: take a deep breath, gaze right into fear’s eyes and make your peace with him. Then look. Learn. Soar.
Curiosity may have killed the cat; more likely
the cat was just unlucky, or else curious
to see what death was like, having no cause
to go on licking paws, or fathering
litter on litter of kittens, predictably.
Nevertheless, to be curious
is dangerous enough. To distrust
what is always said, what seems
to ask odd questions, interfere in dreams,
leave home, smell rats, have hunches
do not endear cats to those doggy circles
where well-smelt baskets, suitable wives, good lunches
are the order of things, and where prevails
much wagging of incurious heads and tails.
Face it. Curiosity
will not cause us to die–
only lack of it will.
Never to want to see
the other side of the hill
or that improbable country
where living is an idyll
(although a probable hell)
would kill us all.
Only the curious
have, if they live, a tale
worth telling at all.
~ Alastair Reid