Junior high school was an exciting time in my young life. The discovery of academics, girls, and sports made for a great combination. There was always something to do! Admittedly, my favorite classes were physical education and lunch, but I also learned to read for more than just pure entertainment. Reading for the purpose of learning was like turning on a light, and it brought with it a greater vision of the real purpose of education.
The girl stuff remained a mysterious yet powerful influence lurking in the shadows of my early teen existence. It occasionally burst forth to set the world aglow for a week or two, until either she or I lost interest. Just long enough to accumulate a few secret messages written on notebook paper (no social media in those days!), and then back into the shadows it crept. No harm done, and I could still hit the ball just as far.
In ninth grade, the coaches built into our sports education an introduction to gymnastics: forward rolls, backward extensions, and even a handspring or two. We bruised our armpits on the parallel bars and grew a few blisters swinging on the high bar. It was great fun, but every now and then a bit scary.
One day, the coaches decided to see who would really go for it on the high bar. All the students and a few coaches crowded around the bar and the floor-softening mats. One boy began to swing back and forth, higher and higher to build his momentum, with the idea in mind to let go at just the right moment on the upswing and roll in the air in a flip before landing on the mat-hopefully, feet first. Few had the courage to even attempt such a death-defying feat.
When the coach looked my way and motioned for me to grab the bar and start swinging, I eagerly jumped to the task. A little spit and a cloud of chalk dust on my hands, and up to the bar I leapt. Now swinging, now gaining some speed and height, it was time to attempt a flip off the bar.
To my surprise, I couldn’t let go. The more I determined to cast my body to the wind, to challenge the forces of gravity, to avoid the humiliation of failure, the tighter became my grasp on that cold steel bar.
“Let go,” cried the coach. “Now!” he yelled.
“You can do it!” screamed my classmates in futile support. But the more they coaxed, the firmer my grip became.
Finally, dropping to the ground in defeat, I looked up at that bar and pronounced it a demon. Of course, I couldn’t let go. I wanted to. I wasn’t afraid, but it had me in its evil clutches. It conquered us all that day. Not a boy who tried was able to wrest himself free of the monster bar. Not one of us soared. Not a flip was performed. It beat every one of us.
I doubt that any of us in that class ever became accomplished gymnasts, and that’s not a particularly bad thing. Such athletic feats are not for everybody and are certainly not the ultimate mark of success. But one thing is certain: Each of us had to learn, at one time or another, how to let go of the personal demon, whatever it might be, that tightened our grip on security and prevented our reaching the heights.
For the shy boy, the one who rarely said a word, it was overcoming his fear of speaking out. He had to let go of the ghost of silence and learn to express deeply held thoughts. The one who seemed to lack intellectual skill had to struggle from the clasp of morbid inadequacy and find his place to excel. The kid who saw himself as ugly, and often felt scorned by his peers, had to leap from the devil-made bar of self-loathing and, forgetting himself, reach out to help others.
In the end, that steel bar in the gym class was nothing in comparison to the other letting go that had to be done. The relief of finally dropping off the high bar and walking away from the potentially bone-crushing landing was a passing thing for a junior high boy. But none of us could finally avoid the time-maybe several times in our lives- when we would have to overcome the imp of fear, jump from our hiding place, and fly into the world of achievement.
Such is life, even the very purpose of life, to trust in ourselves and all we hold sacred, to learn to let go of the bar.
The view from the heights is reserved for those who are willing to set themselves free.