There’s Nothing to Fear But…
…loneliness, going broke, career, illness, strangers, the dark, the light, change, people, love, death. Turns out, there is plenty to fear—if we surrender to it. Sadly, too many of us do just that; we let our fears stop us from knocking down the wall and seeing what’s on the other side. The interesting thing is, most of us don’t start off that way.
Indeed, many of our fears are learned as we move through life. It’s not often you meet an adult who you would consider fearless. Children, on the other hand, tend to be quite fearless. As we get older and gain more experiences; acquire the rust and taint of hurt, pain and failure, we feed our fears.
Fear isn’t all that bad; it is a great survival mechanism that can stop us from walking into potentially dangerous or deadly situations. However, most of us are not in imminent threat—but many of us live our lives as if we are. We perceive threats coming at us from all directions and behave in accordance: avoidance, anger, prejudice, judgment and stillness. Fear-born inertia is quite common but not obvious to identify. We camouflage it as many different things.
I remember when I was in my full bloom of youth. I would go swimming with friends all the time, either in the ocean or at the public pool. We would climb cliffs that would set off an attack of vertigo in me now. We would take turns running and jumping off the high diving board at the pool, seeing who could make the biggest splash. We did this filled with laughter and free of fear.
I felt the icicle of fear sear up my legs, through my crotch and into my belly before settling into my galloping heart.
At some point in my life I became afraid of the high board, literally and metaphorically. This came to the forefront of my consciousness a few years ago when I was at my local pool, and thought it would be great fun to get on the high board and relive my youth. I got to the end of the board, looked down at the sparkling water and froze. I felt the icicle of fear sear up my legs, through my crotch and into my belly before settling into my galloping heart. I felt dizzy and panicky. Cowed, I slowly stepped backward on the board to safety, letting the 5-year-old girl in the frilly one-piece bathing suit have my spot on the board. As I slinked down the ladder, I heard her squeal with delight as she launched off the board and into the water.
What brought all of this to mind was an article I recently read in Vanity Fair about the war correspondent, Marie Colvin. She was a woman with a titanium spine and a very soft heart. She felt compelled to put herself into the middle of bloody battle and strife to tell the stories of civilians caught in the crosshairs of vicious war. Colvin was killed earlier this year in Homs, Syria. I am quite sure Colvin felt a lot of fear on her many missions around the world. The thing that made her stand apart was her ability to manage her very real fears to do what she needed to do.
“Bravery is not being afraid to be afraid.”
Colvin had an incredible perspective on what she was doing, the danger she was putting herself in and how to manage her fear. She externalized it. She did not make herself the centre of the situation but always remembered she was just a visitor to the catastrophe. As she wrote in 2001, “The next war I cover, I’ll be more awed than ever by the quiet bravery of civilians who endure far more than I ever will.” She knew this was not her life. It wasn’t about her.
Another quote from her that really struck me was: “Bravery is not being afraid to be afraid.” That one filled my head. The key to not letting fear get the better of us is to accept that we are afraid. Being afraid is not a flaw; it does not make us lesser as human beings. It is an emotion we all feel at various times in our lives. Letting our fear rule us is the challenge we must overcome.
Closer to home; all of this made me think of my grandfather who died about 15 years ago. He was a very hearty man who was an entrepreneur, built his own house with his own hands and faced life head on. He was a World War II veteran who served in the ships that carried supplies and sailed with the battleships. He crisscrossed the Atlantic many times during his service knowing that each trip could be his last.
Go ahead, get on that airplane, go out for dinner alone, go after that job…After all, it ain’t war; it’s just life.
After returning from war, my grandfather began to suffer panic attacks. Of course, in those days, there was no such thing as post-traumatic stress syndrome or panic disorders. You just walked off the battleground and back into your life and didn’t talk about it. According to my mother, he suffered from these attacks for years. Somehow, he managed to get through it with help from my grandmother.
Fast-forward to the early 1990s. My grandfather was visiting Toronto form his home in Halifax when he had a stroke. It wasn’t a major stroke, but was the precursor to the Alzheimer’s that would eventually take him. I remember being with my mother in the hospital where he was being treated. She was understandably upset and wasn’t doing a good job of hiding it from my grandfather. He lay on the gurney calmly waiting for the doctor to come back with some test results when he finally placated my mother with a simple sentence I’ll never forget: “Hon, it’s okay. You’ve got to expect these things when you get to be my age.”
We will all face things that will challenge our feeling of safety and fill us with fear; some are real and some are constructs of our interiors. The important thing is to recognize the fear; accept the fear then push through it. So, go ahead, get on that airplane, go out for dinner alone, go after that job, step out into the night, make eye contact with that person you’ve been admiring, stick you hand out and grab it. After all, it ain’t war; it’s just life.
photo credit: Glass Creek
, Andrew Vail
, Marie Colvin
, Vanity Fair
, World War Two