Skydiving and Spiritual Growth: Why Fear Is Only a Phantom

Elli as a young woman seated next to her now husband, John

I used to have a long list of fears and phobias that held me back from being my true self. I was incredibly shy and plagued by an extreme fear of what others thought of me. My fears ranged from rejection, sounding stupid, and looking ugly to public humiliation and judgment. These fears stopped me from entering a store alone, speaking in a crowd, meeting new people, attending a party sober, being generous, or trying new things.

I also had phobias of bees, snakes, stinging insects, and horses, as well as a fear of heights. I was afraid of the dark, storms, and being struck by lightning. I feared the ocean and imagined being eaten by a shark or seized by a giant octopus. Even the boogie man lurking behind dark corners or hiding in my closet terrified me. I have been afraid of germs, getting sick, and had such a fear of throwing up, I can endure almost any flu or poison without vomiting. The sight of blood could make me faint or feel queasy.

However, in my early 20s, I realized that fear is a choice—profoundly ingrained and often rooted in childhood traumas, but still a choice. I decided that living with fear was much worse than confronting it. I spent that decade actively facing and dismantling these fears, learning to accept myself. The heavy blanket of my shyness thinned, making navigating life easier and my relationship with God stronger.

By my 30s, I was deeply engaged in healing and forgiveness, tackling the deepest, darkest fears until I struggled to find anything I was still afraid of. I came to understand that fears are often tied to lies we believe, formed from traumatic experiences and protective instincts. Sometimes, breaking free requires shattering old vows or embracing forgiveness to sever the ties to these fears.

The Mythology of Fear

Wide shot of a castle in Ukraine

In my early 40s, feeling fairly invincible, I visited a castle in Ukraine, where I walked along the edge of a wall with a 30-40 foot drop. The path was narrow, about two feet wide. Without warning or a single fearful thought inducing my response, I immediately felt vertigo and found myself fallen onto the ledge. The others with me thought I had tripped and were scared that I could have fallen off the ledge. Thank God I fell onto the ledge and not off the ledge.

In my quest to conquer every fear in my being, I recognized quickly that I still had a fear of heights. This fear is so ingrained in me that I actually get dizzy and nauseated, even void of thoughts of peril. In my mind, I'm not afraid of being up high or falling, but my body is afraid. My first response to heights is my heart flutters, then vertigo, then nausea.

On this trip to Ukraine and the castle, I realized this fear had been with me my whole life. I was committed to ridding myself of it and traced it back to a multitude of experiences. At two years old, I nearly died by falling off a building in Greece when my brother grabbed me and saved me. At six, my dad took me on a terrifying ride at the Seattle Center that simulated a free fall to the earth. But the most compelling cause I could find was in my ancestors.

My dad told me stories of the heroes and gods from Greek mythology. Hephaestus, the god of fire, was also an artist. His mother, Hera, and father, Zeus, were chronically quarrelsome. One day, when Hephaestus took the side of his mother, Zeus threw him off the side of Mt Olympus, where he plummeted to his near death.

He lived but was horribly injured and mangled in the process. His mother couldn't bear the sight of his disfigured body because it reminded her of the failed marriage with Zeus, so she threw him off the mountain once again.

Ancient Greece has been rife with documented accounts of Spartans and Athenians tossing infants off of mountains for being imperfect. A father had ten days to decide if he would raise his infant. He brought his child to the elders, and they inspected the infant carefully. If it appeared weak, sick or had birth defects, it was thrown off the mountain because they believed a life with disabilities was worse than death and was a sign that the gods looked upon you unfavorably.

Discovering the Roots of Perfectionism

Stone carving of a child being thrown off a precipice

I began to put the puzzle pieces together and see how my early perfectionism was rooted in agreements I made with the spirits of my ancestors, nullifying the gifts of grace, growth, and appreciation for the journey. I embraced the deception that glorified getting it right, striving to be the best, and seeking the approval of an adoring audience.

My perfectionism, like the ancient Greeks, valued performance and ability above the beauty of learning, process, and work. This lie opened the door to a fear of disapproval, rejection, and judgment. I believed the lie: "If I'm not enough, I will be thrown off the cliff."

In second grade, while struggling with cursive and overwhelmed by my perfectionism—crying and writhing in my chair uncontrollably over loops that weren't just right and lines that extended slightly past their marks—I didn't realize my real fear was of being thrown off the mountain.

I didn't know I was making an agreement with Hera and Zeus that would reverberate into my body so that every time I climbed up high or stood on a ledge, it put me under a dizzy spell and aimed to throw me off.

Once I connected my fear of heights to the root of pride and Greek perfectionism, I was determined to beat it. I left Ukraine with an unwanted guest I never knew was with me. Although I felt like I had already overcome perfectionism, it still lingered. It morphed into feeling rejected by John if he didn't listen to me or interrupted me. I felt rejected if he didn't stick up for me. Maybe I wasn't good enough for him.

I still pursued excellence in my artwork, teaching, website, and parenting. I felt like my children's behavior reflected on me and was tied to approval and judgment. What others thought still mattered to me. I still brought the infancy of my endeavors before the elders to scrutinize whether they were worthy to be raised or would be rejected for their imperfections.

I realized I had to embrace flaws, failures, and shortcomings. They were all a part of the beauty of the journey—not towards perfection but towards destiny. My weaknesses marked the road to my purpose. God did not look upon me, or anyone else for that matter, unfavorably, but loves me in my weakness and strengthens me to achievenot to glory in my own doing, but to glory in his love for me. An imperfection is an opportunity for God to move and make himself known to me.

From Fear to Flight

Elli and Dimitra Milan pose in front of a collection of their combined artwork

Later that year, on Jake's birthday, Dimitra arranged for them to go skydiving! I was completely impressed by her decision because Dimitra has been known to shy away from anything dangerous. She is not what you would call a daredevil or one who will test her physical limits. I thought how much she must love Jake to think of that as a gift.

I felt inspired to new heights when I heard Dimitra explain how empowered she felt to overcome the terror of jumping out of an airplane. As soon as I heard her story, I knew I needed to do the same thing. Once again, I had to defy the gods and fling my body from miles above to the earth below, yet fly and come through unscathed. Once I did this, they couldn't touch me.

My bravery and commitment to sign up for skydiving opened the door for the several people who worked for us to do the same. We went as a large group for "team building."

We all had to gather inside a tiny single-wide office in the middle of the desert, listening to safety videos that I chose to block out. I didn't listen because I could feel myself go deep into scrutiny and doubt. I didn't want to find a safety loophole and talk myself out of this. I signed the waivers and papers saying that if I died, I could not sue them from the grave.

Defying Fear, Defying Gravity

Elli skydiving high above the ground

We began to divide off into pairs and walk toward the tiny planes with our guides. My heart was beating fast, and I knew the second I got inside the plane, there would be no turning back. My fate would be sealed. I sat on the plane with my back against the man I was strapped to, the complete stranger to whom I had entrusted my life, in hopes that he would pull the cord, that his parachute was intact, and that he did not have a death wish in league with the ancient spirits.

Elijah, my son-in-law, was with me. He was in his element—completely fearless. As the rickety plane climbed and I could feel the wind of the heights bounce inside the plane, I felt like I was going to throw up. I never throw up, but I felt like I would. I supposed my face was white or green or frozen because Elijah asked, "Are you OK?"

I couldn't speak. I couldn't think. I was in the throes of terror. I didn't know what I was afraid of exactly. Was it death? Was it a disfigured body like Hephaestus? Did I fear fear itself at this point? Then Elijah said to me with tremendous love, kindness, and confidence, "Elli, you can fly! You are an eagle!"

I blinked and let him know it registered with a slight smile. Then the side door flung open, and the photographer climbed out onto the wing and onto the lower bar. The man I was strapped to said, "Get ready!" and slid us out onto the wing. I felt every life force within me leave. I felt like I left my body, and what was happening to me was happening to someone else. I don't know that I felt fear anymore. I felt nothing.

Like a vapor, the plane disappeared, and I was flying. I was not falling. There was virtually no sensation of gravity or weight or the feeling of dropping. I felt lifted, like I was soaring. I was enveloped inside of silent bliss, watching the beauty of the earth below. My arms stretched out, and my legs fanned out behind me as I floated effortlessly. I was weightless, without fear, without a thought in the past or a thought in the future. I was 100% present, just flying.

Then I felt myself being pulled up, and my legs fell below me. The man had pulled the cord, and I could feel my weight again. As we slowly dropped to the earth below, I started reflecting on the minutes before. I couldn't understand why I wasn't afraid, and even now, as I was floating in the air, how was I not afraid? I couldn't make sense of it. The intense fear had stayed on the plane. It was completely gone.

Defeating the Phantom

Elli soars through the air with a smile on her face

In that moment, I realized that fear only exists in the future. I was now living what I had feared all my life, but as I lived it, the fear didn't exist. Fear is a phantom, a projection, a mirage. It can only bring fright to what is yet to come. As soon as you meet the future, it disappears. Facing fear is slaying the paper dragon, unmasking the monster, and defying the gods of the ancient spirits.

I always knew that to beat fear, I had to face it. But as I flew through the sky above the clouds, weightless and free, it became a perfect experience to truly know how toothless fear is. It only exists because we allow it to. It can disappear the moment we deny its existence.

Fear loves to be big, amplified, exaggerated, and overblown. It wants to take front and center stage and be as boisterous as possible. It wants to be focused on, revered, and given ultimate power and authority. But if we fly like eagles and defy the gravity and the weight of fear, it will disappear.

I landed with two feet on the ground, empowered, strong, and free.

Elli smiles awestruck up at the camera, seated on the ground after her skydiving adventure

Share your story in the comments below!


  • Debbie Pellegrini

    It was empowering to read your story and to realize I share ALL of your fears. In the very short time since I have found you all, you have startling empowered me as an artist. You’ve opened my eyes to being freer, that my paintings will no longer be stilted. My whole life I’ve wanted to attend art school. This dream didn’t happen until now, at 70 years young. Thank you so much! I can’t wait to immerse myself in what you have to teach me! You’ve changed my life!
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Aww! debbie! That’s so wonderful to hear. So proud of your courage to go for it! You’ll inspire so many people with your art!

  • Karen Jones

    Fantastic words to take me with you in your story. So on point for me this week. Thank you. My childhood fear of running out of money came screaming in my face this week as my AC broke. Overwhelming fear that I was determined to face full on for the last time! So funny how distorted fear is. The part was $50. And I had just sold two paintings but that all didn’t matter. I processed through it and am sitting on the other side. Thank you for your words, they describe it perfectly. Congratulations 🎉 it feels so great, doesn’t it!!
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Wow! Yes! The other side is the best place to be!

  • Kim CLARK

    BRAVO! I completely understand how much bravery it took just to get on that plane. I love it when life pivots like that! I admire your courage and know you will continue to conquer whatever gets in your way.
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Aw! Thank you Kim. It helped having our team there. I couldn’t chicken out in front of them. 🤣

  • Pat Ligon

    Wow! You sure know how to tell a story! I was there with you! Very scary! I overcame the fear of teaching high school students. Every day for the first few years, I would feel queasy before entering my classroom. Eventually, I came to really love teaching my children and did not want to retire but it was time. I miss the classroom every day. It was so worth overcoming my fear! Thanks for sharing this story!
    I sure miss all of you artists at Rhodes. Such a wonderful experience!
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    It’s hard to believe you could be afraid of commanding a class! You are so confident with talking to people and be in front! It shows you overcame it! Maybe you can go on another trip with us! 😊

  • Lisa Reid

    Absolutely encouraged by your story Elli. Thank you so much your insights on conquering fear. Empowering!!
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Yeah!💪🏽 I’m so glad!

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