My first time going on a roller coaster was when I was 11 years old. It was a year after my sisters and I immigrated to the United States and we were excited to try as many “American” activities as possible. Going on a roller coaster ride was one of our top priorities. However, my 11 year old mind never considered the possibility of acrophobia (fear of heights) until I was buckled and strung tightly in the air. I am happy to say that after that experience, I have never gone on another roller coaster again and don’t plan on doing so any time in the near future.
Why do I talk to you about this experience?
Well two years ago, I had an opportunity to overcome my fear of heights again. Thankfully it wasn’t on a roller coaster, but it was something equally frightful.
I was with my team at a character building obstacle course center in Jinja, Uganda. This center promoted core ethical values as the forefront for personal and relational success (Principle 1). Hundreds of people with different lifestyles and occupations ranging from co-workers, sport teams, and families usually frequented this center to work on team-building. When there, they engaged in several activities that helped them to create bonds of trust and dependency on one another (Principle 2). The importance of core ethical values, and cultivating them were woven into activities done throughout the day (Principle 3).
In our excitement, my team and I dove right in! One particular game we enjoyed was called blind trust. We were split into two teams—one with blindfolds and the other without. The goal was to make it to the other side of the field without falling into the “potholes”. Those with the blindfolds were led by the voices of those of us who weren’t blindfolded. This activity not only allowed us to practice care and trust but it also encouraged us to depend on one another (Principle 4).
Additionally group leaders were assigned to all visitors. These leaders were on staff at the center. Their responsibility was to lead the visitors through the obstacle courses and relay to them the character trait the particular activity emphasized. Throughout the teachings, directions and affirmations they offered to us, the leaders promoted and modeled traits like courteousness, thoughtfulness, dependability, and responsibility (Principle 6).
As the day went on, I could feel the excitement from my team increase as we formed closer bonds with one another by working hand in hand. However, I was not prepared for the last activity of the day. This was something we had to do individually. And although this last part was optional, many of my coworkers decided to do it.
The challenge was to climb up a very tall tree trunk which towered over my frame of 5’6. It was the longest tree trunk I had ever seen in my life—so tall that tilting my head to see where it ended hurt my neck. “How in the world am I supposed to navigate this tower with just a harness on?” I wondered. With squinted eyes, perspiring palms and an ever increasing heart rate, I anxiously watched as our instructor performed a trail run for my peers and I. Once he neared the top of the trunk after climbing, he balanced his body by standing on top of the trunk with both feet, then jumped onto a trapeze which hung a few feet away. “Don’t worry,” He exclaimed after finishing. “It is so easy—there are some people who have done this blindfolded!” I looked at him incredulously thinking he must be kidding.
As I watched my coworkers start up the tree trunk, some showing fear in their eyes, while others enjoyed the rush of adrenaline in doing something thrilling, I felt my whole body shaking. “I can’t do it. I can’t do it,” I remember saying over and over again. “Freda,” my group leader said to me. “You have nothing to fear but fear itself. If everyone can do it, so can you. They are not any different from you. What they can do, you can too.”
I don’t remember much after he said those words, but I remember my shaking knees. I remember the way my heart thumped so loudly in my ears I thought it would burst. I remember the faint voices of my friends shouting, “You can do it Freda,” leaping out at me. I remember the irrational “fears” about everything that could go wrong. But most importantly, I remember the incredible feeling that was far beyond words—when I leaped off the tree and caught hold of the trapeze. As I swung back and forth in the air, I cried—hard. I cried because I realized that anything is possible if we put our minds to do it. I cried because I realized the wonderful sweetness that comes from leaders who build people up. By stirring up my self-motivation (Principle 7), my group leader encouraged me to overcome my fear of heights for my own self-edification.
We all have “phobias”. But when we surround ourselves with the right people at the right time—when we get to be in an environment where shadows of the 11 Principles of Effective Character are evident—we see nothing but the formation of good character.