By Rhiannon Carlson
For many that have jumped out of an airplane professionally or for recreation, the second jump is the most terrifying experience a person can have.
The first jump is the culmination of a lifetime of expectation and anticipation. Our preconceived notions blind us to the reality of the experience and we leap with what can only be identified as pure exuberance. We are completely unaware of how little we know about parachuting and that if a malfunction happens, we would scarcely be able to react to save our life; we are naïve.
The adrenaline pumping through our veins ensures that we reach the ground with a smile, causing us to rush to the first person we see so we can relive every second of that all too brief experience; we excitedly talk over one another if we were both on the jump. We are, in fact, so excited that we can hardly wait to rig up again and board another aircraft to relive such an experience.
However, once the novelty and adrenaline wear off, and we are faced with the prospect of jumping again, nervousness sets in.
The second jump is not like the first; the second is pure terror. You find that you have become very selective about which parachute you will jump, unwilling to try a different model and wishing you could use the same parachute (you know that one works). When you don your rig, you find that you are obsessive with checking every fastener and strap, every tie-down and loop, and every piece of canvas and nylon.
The checking and rechecking becomes impulsive even though your rational intellect is telling you that it was just checked and everything is fine, the jump master told you so. This is little comfort because it has become all too obvious that you really have no way to know if everything is fine because you have very little real experience, other than a basic safety course and the previous jump when your mind was on autopilot from the excitement. Then you board the aircraft.
Unlike the first flight, which seemed like you were ready to jump as soon as the airplane took off, the second flight seems like it will never get to jump altitude above the drop zone. This whole time the aircraft is virtually silent, even though your ears are ringing from the deafening roar of its engines. You are alone with your thoughts, every second a lifetime, every minute an eternity. Occasionally, someone will speak up in an attempt to alleviate the torture of being so utterly alone, but it is to no avail, and the aircraft soon becomes silent again.
Suddenly, the jumpmaster stands up to prepare for the ritual of compliance that will turn every individual into human lemmings rushing for the cliff. The look on the face of the jumpmaster is so calm that it seems to be the embodiment of stoicism and bravery. This is not the look on the faces of your fellow jumpers and you realize that you must be wearing the same expression, regardless of your attempts to mirror the jumpmaster.
As you stand up, you notice that you and your fellow jumpers are drenched in sweat, and the obsessive checking of your harness continues. This is not a game; you become increasingly fatalistic on this flight as injury or death seems to be more real. Then the door opens, and you hear the scream of the wind as it rushes into the fuselage. The light next to the door turns green and your mind finally gives you a short reprieve, as everyone rushes to the door with scarcely a conscious thought. It seems to be easier if following a fellow jumper, surrendering to the herd.
The reprieve ends as the blast of the 120-knot wind hits you like a freight train, ejecting your body into the abyss. You count to four like you were taught, but you reach five, then six because you are counting too fast. Just as you prepare to pull the rip cord for your reserve, you feel the brutal shock of your parachute open. You don’t remember it being such a violent hit to your body, did something change? Of course something changed, this time you’re aware. One thing remains the same however, and it is the peaceful calm and silence of floating towards the ground under a full canopy (assuming you are not tangled in your risers because your exit was so weak compared to your first jump).
The ground seems to approach faster than last time and the calm and peace of being suspended under your canopy abruptly ends. You do have the sense that you are out of the woods from something catastrophic happening, but that does nothing to soothe you from the knowledge that this is where most painful injuries occur. Let’s face it: The impact of hitting the ground at 20 feet per second is like jumping from the roof of a two-story building. This is why your mother would ground you if you attempted anything that stupid as a child.
You hit the ground with a grunt and a thud, and then the obsessive checking continues; this time it is your body, not your harness that you are concerned about. “I’m okay!” you say as you stand up, slightly weak in the knees from the experience. And after all of that thinking, all of that reflective anticipation before the jump, and all of that terror, you start to wonder why this jump was so different and if you should ever do that again.
Like the adrenaline and joy that overwhelmed the senses of the first jump, the terror that defined the second eventually subsides to a faint memory. But just like after the first jump, you have changed and you know it. You are no longer ignorant of reality but your preconceived notions, beliefs, and immaturity have yet to be destroyed. You are also more experienced in that you can think through such an overwhelming experience and you also are aware of how much you do not know. You prepare to jump for a third time.
The third jump is different; if a person has not given up at this point, the prudent course of action now is to learn everything there is to know about parachuting. Speaking from my personal experience, this is when I began to engross myself into the history and development of parachuting, the theory and physics of jumping from an aircraft while in flight, and began to take serious the mind-numbingly repetitive ground training that prepares the mind and body for the jump.
Make no mistake, the third jump is certainly worse that the first, but nothing compares to the second. Gradually, the more jumps a person makes, the less fear and anxiety a person experiences. Of course, butterflies in the stomach never disappear – if they did, I would question the person’s sanity or even humanity – but some uncertainty makes it so worthwhile.
What does this mean? Why is it important to understand that the second jump is always worse than the first?
The answer is simple: Understanding that it is the second jump that is the source of terror, it is possible to understand that it is impossible to fear the unknown. Rather, it is what we have identified as an object of fear, but neither our knowledge nor experience has provided us with the tools to deal with that object of our fear.
No child is born fearful of the unknown, but is naturally curious about a whole world of possibility and experience. We learn fear through interaction without experience, identification without knowledge.
This is a powerfully simple proposition that explains why people react the way they do, not when presented with the unknown but when they are presented with a new reality that challenges what they previously thought. We know just enough to hurt or be hurt by ourselves or others, because our knowledge and experience have not developed to the point where a person has reached a new level of maturity.
The Transgender community is emerging from years of institutional silencing and marginalization. We have always existed, but the lack of attention outside of tabloids, exotic entertainment and daytime television made our existence seem more distant, our numbers few, and the problems of “the other.” If Cisgender society did acknowledge us, it was only okay if we remained as a carnival sideshow on the outskirts of community. This is no longer the case.
Transgender people are now fighting for space in our communities and are no longer willing to be pushed to the outskirts, and for some, this is a source of great fear. For many, we are a direct challenge to notions of what it means to be man, woman, or something else. For some, we challenge what it means to be human.
This fear is baseless and is the result of experiencing something new but not having the knowledge or tools to understand. We will get there with hard work, a commitment to understanding, and education. In time, what seems like a leap of faith will become routine and like the paratrooper, gender diversity will seem less scary.
Until that day comes, we must not give people an avenue to harass transgender people who are not breaking any law, and who are not harming or a threat to anyone. SB100 (a bill filed in the Indiana State Senate for the 2016 session) as it currently stands, does this. It attempts to keep the status quo and force transgender people back out of public space, back to the carnival tents on the outskirts of town.
We cannot allow the fearful few to have special permission to discriminate against the most marginalized population in the country. In the coming month, we demand that our representatives remove language that perpetuates fear and restore language that would make this a true Civil Rights Act. This is an opportunity for us to learn and grow and not compromise to fear.
Rhiannon Carlson is vice-moderator of GenderNexus, an organization addressing issues of those who are gender diverse (gendernexus.org).