Since my last post I’ve been mulling over fear, and the insidious way it infiltrates so many aspects of my life. This is a benefit of having identified my fourth corner – even without intending to, my subconscious is analysing every inch of that angle in an attempt to overcome it. The act of recognition is enough that I simply can’t ignore it anymore. It’s like when you buy a new car and suddenly start seeing that same model everywhere. Only instead of Nissan Pulsars, my periphery is being snagged by moments when I realise I’m holding back, or feeling anxious, because of fear.
I use the word insidious with very deliberate intent. This is how I’ve gotten to twenty-six without pulling myself up sooner, gritting my teeth and staring down my flaw in an old country shoot-out.
It hid. And I was its accomplice.
The camouflage, like all good camouflage, appeared natural, so when I scanned my actions for inconsistency my metaphorical eyes skipped right over the fear squatting in the middle of my decision-making processes.
It hid in rationale.
See, as I grew and came across confronting situations, my brain learnt to weigh the risk and plan an appropriate course of action. I would see a kid dared to drink two litres of milk vomiting and whimpering in pain at the one and a half litre mark and decide to politely decline when dared to try the same. I gauged the discomfort of potentially retching out a good part of my stomach-lining against the notoriety of being the guy who sculled two litres of milk, and found it wanting. I reasoned that the reward was not worth the risk.
This ability is necessary for survival. It’s how we learn that, no matter how pretty the flame, grabbing at the gas stove won’t end well. It’s why most people who see footage of base-jumpers shake their head and mutter a few choice curse words before declaring that they would never do that in a million years. This line of logic has kept our species alive for countless generations – those without it failed to evolve due to extinction.
So it was within this nest of good reasoning that my fear hid, looking to all outward appearances like a well-thought out decision. But it was, in fact, an excuse. Let me give you another example:
I’m ten, dressed in little red speedos and pretty confident I’m pulling them off, and paddling around the local pool. Enter a friend who begs me to come jump off the tall diving board with him, extrapolating on all the joys I would find from flinging myself off such a great height and falling into a body of water. I trace my gaze all the way up the long ladder to the top where the older boys are pushing each other off, and feel that familiar curl of fear in my stomach. It’s big, and intimidating, and I’m scared. A gear shifts in my head and I’m laying out all the risks: broken neck, drowning, smacking my head on the diving board on the way down, and, of course, a dreaded ten foot belly-wacker. The scales in my head tilt and the decision is made – no way am I jumping off the tall diving board. My friend whines and cajoles, and eventually stomps away in defeat to wait at the bottom of the ladder.
Perfectly reasoned out decision. Only there’s one catch: the risk wasn’t why I didn’t jump.
It was the fear of risk.
Even taking into account the potential harm, the odds of me injuring either my body or pride were low (I didn’t realise it, but my pride had already taken a hit by my wearing of the speedos). I was insecure and built a defence of reason to justify my cowardice. My fear was fed, I failed to act, and was left thinking I had done the right thing.
My self-delusion and lack of insight weren’t the worst part, however. No. The worst part is I will never know what it feels like to jump off the tall diving board at the age of ten. That is by far the most tragic outcome of my flaw.
This may seem like an insignificant consequence of what is meant to be the defining defect in my character, but take a moment to think it out. Extrapolate this one small self-denied joy and spread it across a lifetime. How many thousands of moments have I backed down and missed out on? Where would I be, who would I be, if I faced down my fear, sucked up my courage, and climbed, knees trembling, to the top of that ladder?
I can’t know the answers to those questions, and if I’m honest, I’m not too worried about what they are. I am who I am. Like any human that has ever existed, I am the end results of all my successes and failures, skills and flaws, and am an interesting, three-dimension person because of it. Ultimately the answers don’t matter because I am happy with the man I am.
What dwelling on this aspect of myself gives me, the gift that comes from pawing through my tangle of persona and following the thread of fear to its root, is the option of choice.
Before, I was acting on years of instincts, giving in to the immediate reflex to step back, to say no, to protect myself from a menagerie of conjured physical and emotional risks. But now that I can recognise that reaction I have the option to ignore it. I can look at the decision I’m making, dissect the anxiety I’m feeling, and identify it as fear. Once done, it loses its hold. Yes, the fear is still there, but I’ve blown its cover, and I’m no longer mindlessly reacting from that place. I’m stepping back, and isolating that fear, and deciding who I want to be and what I want to do despite its influence.
The choice I now have is to go against my instinct, and step, heart thudding, to the edge of the diving board, and throw myself off.