Sometimes the Lord has to teach us certain lessons the hard way. This has happened to me more times than I care to recount. One lesson He keeps trying to teach me is to have more compassion on people and their weaknesses. I want to share a scary experience I had where this lesson was driven home to me in a striking way.
To give a little background, I can’t remember having any phobias growing up. I wasn’t claustrophobic. Spiders or bugs didn’t scare me (even though I’d prefer they weren’t inside the house), and I had no fear of heights at all. I remember climbing up steep rocks and jumping off into the ocean or a mountain pond below with no jitters. My family went to the top of the Empire State Building when I was a kid, and looking down didn’t phase me a bit.
But to my surprise, I experienced what I call “adult-onset fear of heights” when I was in Paris. A friend and I went up the elevator in the Eiffel Tower to the observation deck to look out at the 360 degree view of the city from up there. As we started over to the outer windows, all of a sudden I had this woozy feeling in my stomach and felt dizzy. I had never experienced that before. I closed my eyes for a few seconds, thinking it would pass, but I still felt unsteady and very uncomfortable when I opened them again. I had to move to the center of the room and wait until my friend was ready to leave.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, thinking maybe I was overtired or jet-lagged from the transatlantic flight. It wasn’t until another experience, where the same thing happened, that I realized for some reason I now had this unease around heights.
This time I was hiking with another friend. We were on a trail that crossed a huge bridge that spanned a river many feet below. We had to cross that bridge to continue on our way, and I went first. (below is a photo of the bridge we had to cross)
That now-familiar feeling started in my stomach as I was going across the bridge, and looking ahead at what seemed to me miles yet to go, I started slowing down. My friend wondered what was happening and asked, “Are you afraid of heights?” I said yes, and she started cracking jokes about it. She said it reminded her of the scene in Shrek, when the donkey is afraid to cross the rickety bridge over a pool of hot lava, and Shrek starts making the rope bridge sway.
Eventually we got to the other side. As we continued on our way, my mind recalled some of the times I had made light of other people’s fears — a girl that was visiting The Lord’s Ranch and deathly afraid of spiders; another who had a phobia of snakes (and who actually encountered a rattlesnake in the outdoor bano!). Another time a few friends and I flew to Mexico City to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On our return flight, we had the most turbulent airplane ride I have ever been on. One of my friends already had a horrific fear of flying and it took all her grit to even get on a plane, but during that ride I joked our way through it — mostly trying to distract her and make her laugh because it was pretty scary, but I could have done it with more kindness and sensitivity.
Now having the tables turned on me, with someone laughing at my own fear, was very good for me. It made me see how unfeeling I can be in my treatment of other’s fears and foibles. We can’t really know what’s going on inside of somebody, even though we are in the same circumstance or living through the same event. We all react differently, bring different wounds to the table, and are dealing with problems and struggles that others might not even guess at.
This experience taught me an invaluable lesson that I have never forgotten. Even though my hiking friend still feels bad now about the incident and her response, I thank her to this day for what it taught me about compassion.