My father is scared of a lot of things. Not that he would openly admit it. He’s scared of heights, he’s scared of water (I’ve never seen him swim), he’s scared of animals (we’ve never had a proper pet at home, only a couple of goldfish and two stick insects that we had to get rid of when they started eating each other), and he’s scared of taking risks. He’s an old-fashioned man of Yorkshire, born and bred, and you wouldn’t guess this fearfulness perhaps, from looking at him. To me though, it has always been prevalant in my life, and I realised yesterday that I most probably earned my fear of heights, and of taking physical leaps of faith (mental ones I am okay with), from him – either through nature or through nurture.
Much like my father, I hate leaping off things and am terrified of abseiling, diving boards, and even the odd high escalator. I just freeze and can’t let go – having to experience that horrible feeling of falling terrifies me. I mean, I spent a whole two years working in a shopping mall religiously avoiding every escalator.
Even though I had practically lived in the mall since a child and had been down every one multiple times, I just suddenly had massive problems with them. Once I had avoided one, once, I started avoiding them all, all the time, until eventually I ourtright refused to go near them at all. Even if it meant a round trip to the nearest set of stairs. I had a routine of avoiding them down to a tee – those stairs, that lift, that service corridor – all planned so I didn’t have to go near the escalator. It was only recently that I started to combat that fear, realising I had to start facing my fear or I would struggle with the simple task of coming down a moving staircase for the rest of my life. (Though I still struggle to understand why stairs need to move?!) I started with the easy ones and worked my way up to the hard ones, until I could again move around the entire mall unfettered. Though sometimes, it still takes me a few ‘takes’ to actually move onto the step, much to the bemusement of fellow mall-dwellers.
In this sense, fear can contain you. Prevent you from doing things. Last summer for instance, I decided to take part in Tough Mudder (a twelve mile obstacle course run), and the fear of high water-based-jumping-scary-obstacles very nearly prevented me from doing it at all. I didn’t want to fail, to look foolish. It was mainly the fear of having to jump off a 15ft-high wooden platform, handily situated at the top of a steep hill with 360 degree views, into a pool of muddy water, which was my worst nightmare.
For some crazy reason I did the race, and after much running and obstacle-facing I ended up stood on the platform at the top of this super-scary obstacle – at what seemed a ridiculous height. For maybe ten minutes I just froze on the platform, allowing many fearless people to walk past me and leap off, apparently without thinking about what they were doing. After a long while, and brief consideration of turning back to the steps leading to the top, I realised that there was only one way I was going to get down from the platform, and it wasn’t the way I got up, so I may as well get on with it. I may have been terrified, but I was also stubborn, and there was no way I was going to go back down the steps.
Somehow, I managed to take my fear with me, in the form of an ear-shatteringly-loud scream, and leap into the water – not without massive support from my friend might I say, who was at the bottom already. And from a random hunk of a stranger (very fearless looking) who had passed by me at the top and, after telling me that he was scared of heights and had taken twenty minutes to do this obstacle himself the year before, then waited at the bottom for me to come down, shouting words of support with my friend like they had known each other for years. (This is the kind of awesome act that defines Tough Mudder.)
A couple of years ago I would have laughed had you told me I’d do that. But you see, up until recently, I was convinced that fear was something that contained you, which labeled you as a particular kind of person. A person who would never do X, Y, or Z because they weren’t the sort of person that could do that – only fearless people could do those things. But then I decided I wanted to join the Armed Forces, and in the long three year process that has been, I have learnt a lot about myself and about the nature of fear, and I have tried to do a lot of things that I’m afraid of. It is, much like my previous post regarding confidence, all about perception.
The definition of fearless may be ‘to not be afraid’, but I think we all know that that is impossible. Fear lives in every human brain and we can’t get rid of it all together. What I saw in others, especially fellow candiadates that I initially envied, as fearless was all relative, because everyone is afraid of something, at sometime in their life. Some people just don’t allow that fear to control them that’s all. I think that being fearless is about not being afraid of fear itself. If there’s something that you want to do but that you’re scared of doing you have to embrace it. Do it anyway. In fact do it because you’re afraid. The only difference between people is not that some people can do things and some people can’t, it’s that some people can do things despite any fear they may feel, and others let the fear hold them back.
Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.
This quote is one of my favourites. It sums up for me how one should handle their fears – find a way to beat them. The key thing that I have learnt is that you can’t just get rid of fear – it is a wall that isn’t going to just go away. You will not find a magical solution. As Michael says of an obstacle, you have to physically climb it – go through it – go around it. It will be difficult. It will seem impossible. But the satisfaction of reaching the other side will be like nothing you’ve ever felt, and the next wall you come to – well you’ll have some experience. It will still be hard, the fear will still be there, but you’ll have some tricks under your belt – climbing it will be slightly easier.For instance … I recently decided to take an actual climbing course, and boy did I look silly on my first climb. Getting up the wall was the easy part – coming back down again – not so easy. You have to actually let go of the wall with both hands before the person belaying you can start to let you down, and initially you don’t feel the tightness of the rope – you don’t feel that till you’ve let go. You have to take a physical ‘leap’ of faith and trust the rope, and the person holding it. It is difficult. (Though I now have a trick where I sit down into the rope more before letting go as it means you feel the tightness more.) It took me an age to let go of the wall on that first climb, I just stood on the wall gripping the plastic rocks like my life depended on it, unable to trust the rope that held me. In the end of course, when my hands were exhausted from gripping, I managed to let go and grab the rope with both hands, and from then it got mildly easier on each climb. Mildly. At one point the instructor asked me why I was doing the course (in a friendly way, not an accusatory one), and I replied becuase it terrifies me, to which she looked at me gone out (as we say in Yorkshire – it means she looked at me like I was crazy). “That’s not a reason I hear very often!” She had eventually said.
It was after one of these sessions, upon talking to my dad about how disastrous it was, when he told me he had been scared of climbing since he tried it in the peak district as a young boy. Had he never tried it since I asked? Turns out he hadn’t. He had avoided it because he was scared of it. That’s when I realised how alike we were, me and him. And I wondered why I was doing it, the climbing, the armed forces, everything; maybe I was was not genetically meant to be that sort of person. Fearlessness was not in my nature.
But then I knew why I was doing it. I was pushing myself to try and be a better person – to challenge my limits and find out how much I was really capable of. I was doing it because fear alone is not enough to prevent you from being the person you want to be. You, your personality, your mental attitude, is what really matters. I may not be a dab hand at being fearless, but I know what I want, and I know I am going to try my damned hardest to get it, and that, I think, is the important thing.
Fear is not the barrier. You are. If you can see past that mental barrier then you will realise that there really isn’t such a word as ‘cant’. You can do anything, anyone can do anything. Fear does not contain you – it won’t prevent you – it will just make it a little bit harder sometimes. But that’s part of the fun right? Who doesn’t relish a challenge? And when you’ve done something you never thought or imagined you could it gives you an amazing feeling. A truly irreplaceable feeling.
I want to pass that feeling on. My advice? Whatever it is that you’re afraid of – keep at it, keep working through the obstacles, and you will get better. Do not just avoid them. Like my escalators – avoid them once or twice and you will likely keep avoiding them. And the stack of things that you have to avoid will just keep piling up and piling up, becoming higher and wider, until eventually it may become near impossible to mount. And then, like my dad, you may spend your life avoiding things instead of doing things.
Do one thing every day that scares you.
I know one thing for certain. You cannot be fearless by avoiding fear. If you avoid fear you are simply accepting that it has beaten you – that the fear is stronger than you and your will to fight it. If you really want to be fearless you have to face your fear. How else can you show that you are not afraid of something, but by actually doing something that you are afraid of?
Bran thought about it. ‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’
‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.’
George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
I should thank my own father at this point, and say that he is an inspiration to me in many ways!