“Fear is a Story We Tell Ourselves”
At 5:30 AM one day in early July, I was roped into a climbing harness and walking backwards off a granite cliff. I had no fear. I’d taken to heart Cheryl Strayed’s words about how fear is a story we tell ourselves, and I’d changed my story: I wasn’t going to be afraid.
Rock climbing was Day Two of a six-day experiential learning course for educators taught by Misha Golfman, founding partner and senior guide at Kroka Expeditions, a wilderness school – and so much more. There were nine of us enrolled in the course; we ranged in age from early twenties to mid-sixties. Most had never worn a climbing harness before.
Almost fifty years ago I completed a twenty-eight-day Outward Bound program in Minnesota, which included rappelling off cliffs above Lake Superior. I loved it, and joined the climbing club the year I studied in England. I still bear scars on my hands from rocks in Cornwall, Devonshire, Derbyshire and Wales.
But I didn’t climb again until I was in my forties and the mother of three. As Francis Bacon oberseves, children make us hostages to fate, and I’d become more fearful, more cautious, more susceptible to imaginary worst-case scenarios. My children tease me about the snow snakes I conjure from anxiety – fantastical serpentine creatures that lurk in my imagination and inhibit reality.
Driving is the single most dangerous activity I engage in. But driving is such a regular and necessary part of my life that I don’t think rationally about it. I know it’s riskier than flying; nevertheless, the snow snakes travel in my carry-ons. And while I know I’m more likely to be injured or killed in my car than in a canoe, I was frightened of running Class II rapids on Day Five of our course.
Fear of White Water
I’d looked forward to being on expedition for three days and two nights. I love moving through nature by muscle and living outdoors, and I enjoy flat-water paddling. But I dreaded running Sumner Falls in a canoe. My canoeing skills were rusty, and my fear of white water robust.
We first met Misha twenty-odd years ago, when my husband took up white water kayaking. It was a time in his life when navigating the hazards of a wild river satisfied his need to escape the pressures of saving other people’s lives at work. I’d be sure to kiss him before he left – in case he didn’t come back – and I spent the hours he was gone planning my widowhood with three young children to raise on my own.
He always came back, his skin polished by the river and his smile restored. I couldn’t deny him a thrill that washed his spirit, but I declined invitations to join him. Instead, I took up rowing, my shell and sculls turning me into a water strider like those insects whose legs barely dimple the surface and glide – a flat-water sport.
My task on our expedition was to “sweep,” making sure nothing and nobody were left behind when we moved camp. I’d always brought up the rear when we hiked with the kids; being last allows me opportunity both to wool gather and worry. On this trip, I worried. Our group included a few members who’d never before been in a canoe, and one who didn’t know how to swim.
We launched. Misha taught us how to read the river and how to use the edge between the current and the calm to navigate. He taught us the bracing strokes we’d need in the white water. We practiced how to stay safe if we capsized. It was so hot that capsizing felt good.
Excited, Not Scared
Nevertheless, I dragged my paddle as we approached the rapids. At the portage, I thought carrying the canoes through poison ivy preferable to drowning. But when we inspected the rapids from the river’s edge, they didn’t look that scary. As I zipped up my life vest and buckled my helmet, I acknowledged that really I was excited, not scared.
This was not the first time I’ve been taught how to run rapids, but it was the first time I’d stopped looking only at the swift water and instead sought out the edge where fast water met calm, and how to use that edge to steer the canoe.
The Edge as Metaphor
I think in metaphors, and seeing how I could use this edge to my advantage was profound. For the first time, I saw that I’d been allowing fear to be a dam that impedes the course of my life, and I could change my point of view. I recognized fear as a form of excitement, and that by embracing that energy I could cross the edge where change happens.
I let the snow snakes melt in the hot sun and steered the canoe downstream in what felt like slow motion as we crossed the fast current, glided down a drop, bounced over chop, and pulled into a calm eddy of accomplishment.
Fear thrives at the gap between not knowing and learning. It’s in this margin between ignorance and experience that we take risks, and by taking risks learn skills and transform ourselves.
Everyone in the group navigated the rapids successfully. The rest of our journey, we paddled, watched eagles and sang.