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On my birthday, my son and I set out to hike the Inwangson Mountain here in South Korea. After climbing what felt like a thousand stairs, we reached a plateau of large rocks. We stopped to snap some pictures overlooking the city.
“I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I’m scared of heights,” Orly said nervously to his tutor and me.
A young Korean woman sat hugging her knees on top of the boulder, as far from the edge as possible. She heard Orly’s comment and in a meek, shaky voice, said, “me too.”
“You speak English!” Orly’s eyes widened. The two struck up a conversation for a bit. We were on our way up the mountain when I glanced at the woman who was still frozen.
I went back for her. “Are you here alone?”
“If you’re scared, you don’t have to climb alone. Come with us.” She hesitated but eventually agreed. Instead of looking out at the mountain, Shinyung said she focused on my feet the entire climb. Every step I made was one more step she made.
We finally reached the summit. The view was breathtaking. Orly and Shinyung stayed at the center of the mountain, once again afraid to get too close to the edge. A long rope bordered the mountain to keep anyone from going too far. I convinced Orly to venture to the edge, but the woman’s knees buckled whenever she moved forward.
I didn’t give up on her, and she didn’t quit trying. I extended my hand and told her to hold on to me. She clutched my arm.
“Shinyung, you are totally safe here,” I reassured her, inching her closer to the rope. “I’m here with you. You are not alone. When we get to the rope, you’re going to put your hand on the poll and hold on tight while I take your picture.”
She gasped, her knees almost touching the ground. But I held her up. “You can do this, Shinyung. You’re almost there.”
Her right hand reached for the pole, as the left hand gripped my arm tighter. “You did it, Shinyung! Reach into your pocket and hand me your phone. Then stand tall for your victory picture.” She obeyed, her gasping sounds becoming more intense. I couldn’t tell if they were sounds of joy or terror. They may have been a bit of both.
With her phone in hand, I took a few steps back, still talking her through the process. She straightened up and grew a few feet. I snapped a few photos quickly so she could go back to the center where she felt more comfortable. It was so quick I forgot to take any with my phone!
On our way down, Shinyung told me she’d been afraid of heights since she was 5 years old.
“What possessed you to come to this mountain all by yourself?” I asked, stunned.
“I don’t want to be afraid anymore.” But halfway up, she panicked. She tucked herself in between the large rocks as the fear took over.
“I thought I couldn’t do it,” she confessed. “I sat there wondering whether I should turn back. I didn’t think I had it in me to go any higher. That’s when I heard your son say he was scared, too. And then you encouraged me to come with you. It’s because of you that I did it. So, thank you.”
Shinyung thought the only reason she climbed the mountain was because we were there with her. But that’s not totally true.
She succeeded because she was brave enough to take the first step and show up. Despite her fear; despite being alone, she set out to conquer that mountain.
When panic struck, Shinyung could have turned around and headed right back down. Instead, she sat still and waited. She gave it some time.
In a true, “Universe has your back” fashion, we bumped into her when she needed us the most. I asked her if she felt less afraid after having reached the top, and her answer was yes. She even said she’d climb the mountain again!
I was so inspired by Shinyung. She reminds us that there are seasons when you’re lifting others up the mountain, and seasons you’ll need someone to pull you up. If you’re dealing with the latter, it’s okay. (Not that long ago the person at the edge of a mountain scared to death of what was going to happen next was me!) You can still show up and rise to the occasion. You can ask for help and accept help when it’s offered. And you can trust in the Universe. Before you know it, you’ll be strong enough to stand tall and smile!
We all have mountains to climb, fears to face, and moments when we’re looking over the edge. But we are resilient beings. All we need is to be brave enough to face the fear and humble enough to realize we don’t have to face it alone. Keep climbing, friend.