How to Take a Difficult Step

The Big StepThe deck of a container ship is 30 feet above the ocean, or more. If the ship catches fire or starts sinking, the crew may need to abandon ship, and if the lifeboats can’t be lowered with the crew in them, the crew may have to jump into the water from the deck. But jumping can be a way to lose control of the fall, and can be dangerous, so they don’t jump. No great heroic leaps. They just step. They step out into space, and fall. One small step for the body, an immense step for the mind.
In the abandon ship training the metal platform that simulates the deck juts out over the pool about 20 feet above it. The instructor tells me to stand a few steps back from the edge and walk forward. And just keep walking. To make sure I fall in an upright position, not landing in a belly flop or twisting backward and hitting my head on the side of the ship, I walk upright out into space and fall.

The simulation is perfectly safe, divers waiting in the nice warm water to help me, an instructor next to me on the platform who just demonstrated how easy it is, thousands of people before me who have safely taken this step. I know I can trust the water to catch me. Three ordinary steps, and then a fourth ordinary step. What’s the problem? Just because there’s nothing to step on? Nothing but space? It feels like my body freezing, but of course it’s really my mind. Then my body steps anyway. And I fall 20 feet. And go to the shower. And put on my clothes. And go to lunch.

So often the consequences of making a move may seem huge, but the step itself is actually simple; as simple as saying yes or no, or picking up the phone or opening my mouth at the meeting table. My body knows how to do these things, but sometimes it’s as if my mind just can’t follow along. Because it’s not the step that’s hard, it’s the space, the open but passing moment. Isn’t it strange that the space of the moment can feel so solid, impenetrable, a mirror in which I see only my fear? In fact it’s actually completely open, even welcoming. Once I take that first step, the space opens up in front of me, possibilities arise, things that are stuck begin to move, and often I look back and say, “That wasn’t so bad. Why didn’t I do that before?”

If I focus on the steps, it helps. They’re just steps. Gearing myself up for a great heroic leap at the problem may not really help. I know how to pick up the phone. Dialing numbers doesn’t take strategy. When someone answers, I know how to listen. I know what needs to be said. Or if not, I’ll find out. I can proceed, step by step. By step. By step. And that’s how we make the leap.

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