Atticus Finch said to Scout, “[courage is] when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
Great quote, isn’t it? But here’s the thing. What things are worth seeing through no matter what? At what point is it best to give up? The little scientist in me may pretend to know the answer to everything, but I can’t seem to figure out which things are worth being courageous about.
Is it okay to be as determined as “madame” during the French Revolution from A Tale of Two Cities? “‘Well, well,’ reasoned Defarge (a different character in the tale), ‘but one must stop somewhere. After all, the question is still where?’
“‘At extermination,’ said madame.”
And with that, lives ended. One after another and over again.
Extermination is what I seemed to have in mind as I stood at the edge of a cliff, waiting for my turn to jump. Most of the kids in my teenage youth group were much larger than me, so none of the lifejackets fit me correctly. But I didn’t have to wear the suffocating things. My dad was there to give me permission not to. “Is she a strong enough swimmer?” they asked him. Yeah, yeah, I’d been swimming since before I could walk, thank you very much. I was very excited to be the first girl to go on the rope swing, and I wanted to hurry and go and jump before I got nervous. I stepped up to the rope swing—sturdy, with a convenient bar for the swinger to hold on to, connected to a bridge 100 feet above the water in the narrow canyon. The sunset-colored rock I stood on blended with the sun setting in the sky beyond the bridge. Shivering, I finally held the bar in my hands. I listened to the instructions.
Hold this paracord attached to the rope in your hands as you swing. It’s long enough to reach the water so you can get the rope and climb it back up to this cliff for the next jumper. Run. Jump sideways off the rock. Wait until you’re at the peak of the swing on the other side so you don’t skid across the water into the canyon wall. It’ll only be a 30 foot drop there instead of a 50 to 60-foot drop like it is here. Or was it 70 here? How tall is this cliff? At least 60 feet? At least 50 for sure. You’ve cliff dived before, right? So you know how to land on the water? Feet first with your toes pointed? Good. Oh, and don’t pee in the water. The parasites will get into you.
Wait. Parasites? No one said anything about parasites! In me? Too late now. Just go just go just go! Jump before I think about those!
I ran. I miss-stepped. I stumbled off the rock. Confusion. Too much thinking. The bar was too big. The paracord wrapped around my thumb. I saw the sky I saw the water. Whistling. Dry eyes. Bar ripped from my grasp. A yank on my thumb. Tilting. Crashing sound. Stinging.
I couldn’t tell what way was up, so I stayed suspended in the cold water, watching, waiting to think again. It was quiet, calm. The water was a dark jade stone, stormy light lazily making its way through in sporadic streaks. Time was suspended in awe. Thinking finally came back to me, and I realized I was floating towards the source of the light streaks. I swam and swam. I broke the surface and color exploded before me again.
I made it to the bank and climbed up the rocks. My thumb complained, as did my opposite foot. I did a quick check of my limbs. My thumb was red and maybe even a little purple, but it was cold. That’s why it looked that way. It could move. It was fine. My foot could move. It was fine. I was fine. Did anything else hurt? Did I care? I smiled and I shivered.
Memories meld in my mind. I don’t remember where some started, ended, came before the others, twisted throughout, but I always remember that this was the only time I did something so stupid. And I’m still proud of it, like a child showing off their brightly colored arm cast. The cast indicates that there was a risk of something so much worse happening, something exciting, something exotic, something stupid. Now I just have a great story to tell.
The “rational” response I should have had in this instance has bled out completely into other places in my life, almost poisoning the experiences. It was always there when trying to audition for honor choir, trying to talk to a teacher, or trying to confront anyone about anything. There was a piece of me lagging behind that would sit there taunting me and pulling me back by the stray cord that I didn’t know had a hold of me.
I’ve started to call this over-rational part of me the “the little scientist.” It’s the same voice that looks at kissing and screams why are you doing that?! Do you have any idea how unsanitary that is? Or it says this is pleasant, but I have no idea why. It’s intelligent, but condescending. Curious, but completely reliant on logic. It has also developed with age. Kinda.
I can’t decide if my little scientist is Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Bennet, or Charlotte. Goodness knows it can’t be Jane. The little scientist is way too sarcastic. Elizabeth is the most useful type of voice. She allows for there to be emotion as a part of decisions and her opinions are firm, but she has no qualms against hurting feelings if it means she gets her all-important point across. Mr. Bennet squelches emotion. He’s the type that’s sitting in the back of the room, giggling madly as disaster strikes so he can analyze their effect in unaffected stoicism. He makes light of those around him when prevailed on to speak, especially of those who can’t tell he’s doing so. And Charlotte. Our dear Charlotte. She has given up on romance and feeling and love and has embraced the all-powerful practical practicality at its most painful.
None of these characters are scientists. But they seem to think they are. This matches my little scientist perfectly. Decidedly important and all-knowing. They’re the ones that know the importance of a lifejacket when jumping off a cliff, even if it would have suffocated them and cracked their necks when they hit the water. They don’t know everything.
I first noticed my “little scientist” was sometime after I jumped off the rock, around my second year of high school. Her words bled into my rehearsals. I could never seem to completely jump into them. I could never “begin anyway and see it through no matter what” as Atticus advises.
I tried to smile. I tried to belt. I tried to dance. My movements were molasses and it felt like someone had a hold of my vocal cords, pulling them too tight. My practice was never good enough. Not for my director, not for me. My director sighed. “Let’s run it again.” I stayed late. Again. As an unqualified lead in a demanding musical, that only made sense.
No one else could hear that piece of me I left behind me that wouldn’t let me jump. No one else could tell that the piece’s grating calls were filling my head until my face was blotchy and there was no room for tears. Those tears were about to come spilling out on my face. The pressure filled my temples. Everything was fuzzy. The lights were too bright. The dizzying words from that “scientist”, pulling me back… Get over yourself, Sarah. Unable to practice in front of people? What makes you think you’ll make it through a performance? Come on. Get a grip. You’re just being prideful. That’s why you can’t rehearse properly. Brat. Just do it already. Are you going to jump in or not? What’s wrong with you?
I heard the practice track approach my entrance as my heart batted frantically against the words. My body was giving up. You can’t sing this. Why don’t you give up and let another singer have this role? They deserve it. You don’t. Idiot. At my entrance, the other lead walked on to the stage. I felt my face get warm. Jitters at seeing him drowned out the words. I was going to make a fool of myself. Better make it a joke, right? I snapped, turning into a frantic goofball that had given up on all seriousness, skill, and poise and I danced to my friend to tease him. I could smash my tears down that way. The little scientist merely looked on, aghast, stunned into silence. “Joseph’s luck, was really out,” I pointed at him as I sang, rolled my eyes, waved my arms dramatically, “his spirits, and his fortune low…”
My director squealed with glee. I jumped, instinctively covering my face, almost falling. “THAT’S IT!” she yelled. “That’s it! That’s the Sarah I know from your audition!”
A single tear escaped from my eyes. I wiped it away and swallowed several times. Weakly, I smiled, cocking my head to keep more tears from spilling. I did something right?
What had I done right? My hand itched at the mic tape on my check. I ran my hands through my hair. I wrung my hands in each other. I didn’t want her to see them shake as she explained what I, for once, did right.
I did pretty well at the actual performances. I had attractive black slacks, a tight black shirt with a flashy pink scarf, high heel leather boots and a spiked pixie cut as my costume. It gave me the confidence and ferocity I never had in rehearsals. Or… was it confidence, or was I too hysterically and violently scared to hear the little scientist telling me I couldn’t do it? That there was no logical answer for why I could perform? The trembling and applause and spotlights and story and nerves and sweat. Did they drown the words out? But doesn’t the little scientist tell me things I’m supposed to know?
Regardless how the performances went, they were the beginning of the end. I gave up musical theater, violin, and singing one by one. The other voice was too loud. The words petrified me every step of the way until that part of my journey stopped. I couldn’t keep up anymore.
I don’t regret that. It needed to happen eventually. But it makes me sad sometimes. What could I have done if I could always drown out that little scientist? I made it into an extremely competitive orchestra, but then didn’t make it a year before quitting. I made it into BYU EMS but quitted after the first two days. I got a prestigious job offer but decided my old one was less intimidating. But here’s the thing. Were those necessarily bad things? The orchestra was a good performance major-friendly orchestra, but the people sucked my soul with their competitiveness. I wanted to do good for society in BYU EMS, but it was too much for me physically. The other job payed so much more and would have offered different experiences, but I had friends and people I cared about who needed me at my old job. Was the little scientist beginning to be right sometimes?
I haven’t decided if the little scientist is ever right. I merely know she’s there. She’s there when I want to talk to professors, making me dizzy and sweaty. She’s there when I’m walking alone at night, jumping at every shadow. She’s there when I want to get mad at a coworker, asking me if that will really help. She’s there, and that’s okay, and I’ve had to learn to live with her. However, if I get another opportunity to cliff dive… that jerk better not stop me.