The goal, at this moment, was to rappel down from the top of this rock, known as Cyclops, to the ground below. This was no normal rappel; this was 150 feet of free air. No rock wall to walk down, just them, the rope, and their own thoughts.
At first they were against it, ganging up on me, refusing the challenge before them. What was it then, fear of heights? Fear of falling? No, it was fear of failing. More specifically, fear of failing in front of each other.
So I talked with them and listened. Encouraged them to expose the real reasons for their refusal, and from there we explored what failure really is.
What I saw before me was not a group of threatening gang members, but a group of fearful boys seeking reassurance, validation, and a desire to belong.
Within moments the youngest—presumably weakest—said he’d do it. He’d rappel down. He’d accept the challenge. And in that moment, I saw change happen before my eyes. As he came to stand on the ground below, I saw the joy and relief of a mind no longer burdened by thought; the pride that came with being the first in the group to tackle his fear. From that minute, I knew I had them all. Instead of hesitating, they began to vie for the opportunity to be next; the opportunity overcome.
Heavy, dark clouds loomed, lit occasionally by flashes of light. The other instructors and I knew that time was of the essence. As the last boy reached the bottom, it was a hurry to drop the ropes and clean the pieces of safety gear off the top. I scurried down the backside of Cyclops as the first raindrops began to fall, thunder overhead and bouncing off the rock walls. The other instructors scrabbled to get the boys to cover.
By the time I caught up with the group, we were close to camp. Rain was pounding upon the ground, thunder and lightning closing in. The boys were tucked away in a large tent, boastful and occupied with their recent accomplishment. To them, the rappel was the event of the day. It was the only thing to be feared and was no longer a concern; it was behind them. But as instructors, we knew the storm presented far more danger.
The surge of energy seemed to go through me. I could hear the sizzle and smell the burning, and for a split second, I was mesmerized by nature’s power. The instinct to duck in that instant was only muted by concern for the boys, which when I looked, had all moved to center of the tent and huddled together; once more in fear, but now able to depend upon each other.
I often reflect on that day when I think about fear. Fear has a way of stripping us down and exposing us—the true us. Our masks, our facades, our acting and posturing—all of it falls away the moment fear steps in. And within that vulnerability of being exposed, we have the opportunity to discover. We can discover true friendship. We can find complete and unlimited acceptance. We can realize ourselves.
I know I have allowed my own children to see me at some of my weakest moments, to which they didn’t run from or criticize, but accepted. Ultimately, they have made me stronger in the same way that that group of boys found a place to accept, support, and strengthen each other.
Mark is a Marine and a 23 year veteran of the LA County Sheriff's Department. He has been recognized by the State Senate, US Congress and the Governor of California for his work in juvenile intervention.