Heroes aren’t free from fear; they’re just so focused on a worthy goal that they feel they can’t turn back. Most of humankind’s great achievements—the sorts of things that make us say, “Oh, wow!”—were accomplished by people who were muttering or shouting, “Oh, sh*t!” Heroes don’t feel special, just dogged. They walk their scary paths with shaky knees and trembling hands. One shaky, trembling step at a time. - Martha Beck
If that’s the definition of a hero, then I feel confident calling myself a hero. I feel afraid almost every day, for one reason or another. Many of the things that I find myself doing lately make me feel sick to my stomach. I used to think that I would eventually get over being afraid and suddenly be able to do everything with confidence and ease.
But instead I keep pushing myself to meet newer, scarier challenges and the fear is always right there with me - like a deep ache that ebbs and flows with the weather.
The good news is that every time I tackle one of these challenges - teaching a new class, submitting my work to new places, making bigger and bolder installations - the relief, excitement, and joy that comes when I meet the challenge is enormous. This video of Will Smith telling his story about skydiving gets it exactly right:
In it, Smith talks about how horrible every single moment leading up to skydiving feels. You can’t sleep the night before. You can’t eat breakfast (note: I don’t need to jump out of a plane to feel this way - just going away for weekend will do it sometimes). You hope and pray that the scary thing won’t happen. But then it does. And…. it’s AMAZING. Suddenly, all your fear disappears and you’re left with euphoria, joy, pure bliss. As he puts it: “The point of maximum danger is the point of minimum fear. On the other side of fear are all of the best things in life.”
I talk about fear a lot on this blog. Earlier this year I did a whole series on how I deal with social anxiety. Last year I wrote about what it was like to give a speech in front of hundreds of people. The reason I try to be so open about it is because of another thing that Smith mentions in the video. An important part of his story, to me, was the fact that no one was talking about how afraid they were. They all pretended that they were 100% pumped. The only thing worse than feeling afraid is feeling like you’re the only one feeling afraid.
In our culture, fear is something to be avoided. We’re asked to overcome our fears, or fight them, or deal with them and move on. Fear is not welcome, and showing fear to others is a big no no. The reason I always thought that the fear would eventually go away? Because it seemed like everyone else was fearless. Now, I know that fear is universal and I've realised the best way through is to both accept it and to talk about it.
Back in university I joined a white-water paddling club. I learned how to paddle a kayak in the university pool and went on trips to run rapids around the province. Being on the river in a tiny, tippy boat was both incredibly fun and incredibly scary. In the pool, I mastered the ability to turn my boat right side up after it had flipped over. But on the river, hurtling upside down in glacially cold water, I could never get it figured it. This meant that I spent a fair amount of time swimming outside my kayak - which was both exhausting and demoralizing.
It felt like I couldn’t get over my fear of the water. Every time I flipped, panic would set in and I couldn’t remember any of the carefully rehearsed movements from the pool. It got to the point where I dreaded going on these trips, and I eventually quit paddling because it wasn’t worth the stress.
Thinking about it now, I’m pretty sure that I would have stuck with white water kayaking longer if I had found someone in the group that I could share my fears with. It was mostly macho dudes who would never admit to being afraid. So in addition to feeling sick before every trip, I felt like there was something wrong with me.
A few weeks ago, I went back to the river that caused me so much distress, only this time I went with my partner: someone who makes me feel safe in the scariest of environments. We had booked a white-water rafting trip and this time, as we piled into the big, bouncy (NOT tippy) boat with another couple, everyone chuckled about how nervous they were. In this instance, it was okay to be scared. And as we raced through the rapids, we screamed and laughed and whooped together. It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.
So if there’s something that you’re afraid of right now, anything at all (trying out a new grocery store definitely counts) I just want you to know that there is nothing wrong with you. Feeling afraid is normal, and good. I’m convinced that we can’t grow and be our best selves without doing things that terrify us regularly. And that doesn’t have to be jumping out of an airplane or hurtling down an angry river.
I also want you to know that you’re not alone. I know I’m not the only one who wakes up most days afraid of what I will have to face. Neither are you.
Think of how much better life would be if we could all hold hands while we take our shaky steps, leaning on each other as we tremble our way to a better life. If we could make jokes about how much we’re sweating, instead of trying to hide it.