As I sit down to write this, I look at the clock and it happens to be 11:30 am, precisely the time, exactly one week ago on Sunday, September 9, 2018, I jumped off a cliff and fractured my spine.
Dave and I had been celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary island camping on scenic Lower Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks of upper New York State. It was a dream come true and all I hoped it would be—crimson sunsets, reading a book with the sound of water lapping the shore at my feet, magnificent views from the nearby summit of Ampersand Mountain… I should have been content with such things.
But canoeing away from it all to begin our journey home, we passed Bluff Island and the giant rock face I’d been eyeing for several days. “I still want to jump,” I told Dave. “Let’s at least go have a look from the top.”
It was a popular spot for thrill seekers; I’d seen a few dare-devils take the plunge during our stay on the lake. I’d YouTubed to make sure this was a “thing,” and seen several others emerge safely from the deep water below. Videos showed parents cheering their youngsters on as they jumped from the ledge just below the 70-foot peak of the bluff. I’d sent a photo to my own teenagers: “Come with us next year! You’d love this place! We can go cliff-jumping!”
Bluff Island on Lower Saranac Lake
We docked our canoe and hiked the short trail to the top of the bluff. The air was cool but the sun was out and I was hot by the time we sat to rest at the peak. “I really want to jump,” I said again. “Want to jump with me?” I asked Dave. I already knew the answer. Dave had always been a “chicken.” I would soon come to know him as a “smart chicken.”
“No, something could go wrong,” he said.
“Whatever could go wrong?” I asked. “The water’s deep!”
“Your legs could separate and cause a tear to your inner thigh muscles, for instance.”
“Nonsense,” I said. “No one lands like that.”
I handed him my phone with the video camera open, and, after much deliberation (would I clear that bulging rock face?), I finally jumped on his second count to three.
Though I leapt out as far as I could, I noticed immediately that I was awful close to the rock face and worried that my body would smack it before hitting the water. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t thinking about how to land. I just… landed. Flat feet first.
My mind won’t stop replaying that sound and feeling. The “cah” was my feet slamming against the concrete-like surface of the water. The “chunk” immediately following was, little did I know, Lumbar One shattering into several pieces; I felt my spine crunch. I rose to the surface thinking, “I have just done something terribly wrong to my body.”
Dave hollered, still filming, “How’s the water?”
“It’s cold,” I answered. I didn’t tell him I was hurt. There were people watching. I didn’t want to make a scene (can you see a problem here?).
I also didn’t want to pass out in the water; there was no one there with me, no boat to rescue me. I decided to focus my energy on getting to “shore,” wherever that was. I swam clumsily along the rock face until I found a crevice and some tree roots to grab and pull myself up. I knew Dave would be climbing down the bluff to meet me. A couple guys yelled down as I made my way painfully out of the water. “You’re one brave woman!”
“Stupid woman,” I corrected. They had no idea how stupid.
Dave finally showed up and I told him I’d done something to my back. He helped me hobble to the other side of the island where there was a shoreline—normally a two minute walk, it probably took us at least fifteen minutes. I took advantage of the large island boulders to rest when I felt light-headed and nauseous from the pain.
I took the phone and called for help while Dave went back to get the canoe so he could cover me with blankets. I must have lain on that wet shore in sopping wet clothes for most of an hour, shaking violently from the cold. Finally the paramedics came and lifted me into their boat and sped away, with Dave paddling behind us.
In the ambulance that awaited me at the main boat launch, I discovered I was somewhat comfortable if I lay on my side and curled myself into a ball. Dave and I decided we would make the five-hour drive to a hospital close to home (I don’t regret that decision, as it placed me within reach of friends and loved ones I desperately needed). With much difficulty the paramedics maneuvered me into the back seat of the truck and we headed south, out of the Adirondacks.
During that long drive I had time to think, to search my heart about what on earth I’d just done… to myself, and to those whose lives would now be centered on taking care of me. Why, oh, why, did I jump?
I stared myself down long and hard with the question. I didn’t want to answer it honestly, but I knew I must. It was the reason I was lying there, broken and humbled to a helpless lump of skin and bones.
Was it only about the thrill of jumping? Not much scares me; I’ve always been the first in line for the fastest, highest roller coasters. Free-fall water flumes. Steep ski slopes. I’m pretty sure I would sky-dive if given the chance. As a kid I once stole into a corral and tried to ride a stranger’s horse, bare-back (as I attempted to mount, it whipped around and bit my butt, leaving dark teeth marks on my cheek for weeks). I walk toward–not away from–black bears visiting the neighborhood. And it’s all for the sheer thrill of it.
But this– was Bluff Island merely about another joy ride? Or was it about more than that? I pondered the question deeply. What if there were no iPhone camera, no Messenger app, no social media on which to post my latest escapade? If no one but Dave would ever see me jump from fifty-five feet, would I still have jumped? Would that three thrilling seconds have been worth the great risk to my safety?
Shamefully, painfully, I realized it may not have been worth it. It’s hard to say for absolute sure, but without any audience, I may not have jumped. Tears filled my eyes in the back seat of that truck as I realized I’d possibly succumbed to the present phenomenon of publicized self-absorption and the current need to broadcast anything and everything that’s the least bit impressive.
Yet for the next few months a rigid clam shell around my torso will remind me what I already know and have already preached to everyone else: I am loved as-is. I am enough. I have nothing to prove to anyone.
I felt so foolish and childish, realizing I’d possibly “jumped to be seen.” But bumping along the highway past Lake George, I entered that wonderful, cleansing stream called “repentance,” which some pass off as being old-fashioned and unnecessary. It was a welcome oasis for a shriveled soul. “I’m so sorry,” I cried to God over and over.
Gently, the words from 1 John 1:9 came to me: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I thanked God for that first part, forgiveness; I believed it and felt it immediately. And I clung to the latter part, cleansing. “Please cleanse me from this need to impress, to put on a show. Wash it out of my life forever.”
During the long days in the hospital that followed, I had time to think some more on my “leap of foolishness.” I’d made a grave mistake, but I knew God used those things as teachable moments. What else was He trying to get at?
It didn’t take long to realize how judgmental I’d been toward people who “show off” in all kinds of ways:
I’d judged people for presenting an idyllic version of themselves on social media, for “propping” themselves up with photos that present a “magazine cover life.” How is that supposed to encourage those of us who don’t have it all together?
I’d judged people for pushing themselves beyond their physical limitations, for trying to “do it all” and “be it all.” I judged them for not knowing how to rest, for not ever being taught about Sabbath rest, which is so central to the Gospel. I judged them for what they didn’t know.
I simply judged any kind of “showing off.” I scorned people with endless selfies in their online photo albums, feeling smug that I had a higher level of self-awareness and knew better than to post so many pictures of myself.
Yet I knew, even as I handed the phone to Dave, that I’d post a video of myself jumping off a cliff. How’s that for hypocrisy? More prayers of repentance followed.
Life’s interruptions have a way of helping us pull the earplugs from our ears and listen to what God’s been trying to tell us all along. I hope I’m finally listening, and listening to the right voice this time.
The voice on the cliff was the same voice in a garden long ago, a voice that hissed, “You can be more, you can do more, and you should. Why settle for lesssssss for yoursssssself?”
And that is the whole problem; we are still helplessly, hopelessly focused on SELF, heaping it with endless vainglory only to come up empty over and over again. That image of me in the back seat of the truck, bent and shattered, is a metaphor for the human condition: we are broken, and mistaken to think we can mend ourselves by the approval of fellow broken humans.
How utterly deceptive. Satan desperately does not want us to know that the only way to find ourselves is to lose ourselves in the love of The Father.
He doesn’t want me to know that I am one hundred percent secure and complete in the unconditional love of God, Who delights in me, even in my most foolish moments. I need the applause of no other.