By my own reckoning, fear falls into two categories: rational and irrational. Rational fears are a part of evolutionarily favourable survival-instincts: it makes sense to be afraid of a raging fire moving towards me or the roar of the bear whose life I just disrupted. It is not rational to be afraid of bear attacks while sleeping in my second floor apartment in central Vancouver or to be afraid of rock climbing while using a full complement of safety gear.
I also wish to draw a distinction between “fear” and “surprise”. In conversation we often interchange scared and startled. For instance, you may startle me with a mouse in my tent, but I am not generally afraid of mice. A bee or wasp might startle me (and the sting is uncomfortable), but I am not allergic to them and definitely not afraid of them or the occasional sting.
Most people can list one or two of their irrational fears and they seem to range in intensity from person to person. I have heard it said that many people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death. Wow. My own personal battle with irrational fear has predominantly been centred on “heights”.
When I was about seven years old I treed myself higher than I had climbed before (about 10-12 m I expect) and, once I realised where I was, panic set in. In my attempts to shift my weight from a trunk-hug position to one where I might use the small branches nearby to support me, I got overzealous and managed to crack or snap the sparse branches that were near me (none were more than 0.5 cm thick at this point in the tree). Eventually I perceived I had no choice but an airborne decent – irrational fear can lead to irrational decisions. But at least it was my choice to go. The lower branches broke my fall a bit, but I hit the ground hard. Fortunately young bones bend: I bounced and then rolled down the slight hill in our yard. I was so badly winded that I remember it feeling like it took an eternity to start breathing again. Lesson: I am independently responsible for each moment (and tree) in my life and must own my decisions along with their consequences.
With this reflection I continued climbing trees. I would climb higher than before just to feel the exhilaration of fear-rooted adrenaline course through my veins. And then, after blowing in the wind for a while, I would slowly descend (sometimes with tear soaked cheeks), hugging the tree trunk. I became quite comfortable in trees but cliffs and ladders (and similar places) still scared the crap out of me. They would scare me to a level of dysfunction that still helps me relate to other people’s irrational fears.
I still remember where I was and what I was doing the last time I let this fear govern my ability to operate. I was about ten or eleven years old at a summer camp called Educo Adventure School. I gained the tools to deal with my fear over the course of two deeply personal situations.
The first situation was on the high ropes course (also known as the “high opportunities course”, perhaps 15-20 m up in the air, strung between trees) near the main camp facilities (to give an idea, here are a couple of photo examples from a google search). There was a portion of the rope course, near its end, that consisted of a balanced walk across a beam 7.5 cm wide. It was called the log walk. I said “I can’t” (I think maybe because there was nothing to hold onto). The instructor patiently waited for me to sort myself out enough to try it and I eventually made it across by pulling on my safety leash for balance. After some congratulations from the instructor, he invited me to stick around rather than proceed on out of the course. He suggested that maybe I wasn’t done yet. Once the tears and shakes subsided, I tried again. And again. I went back and forth across at least 10 times. His patience and encouragement allowed me to get my emotions under control and recognize the irrationality of my fear – and cross without holding onto anything. I even eventually allowed myself to intentionally “fall” off the beam and let the harness catch me. And I insisted on climbing back up onto the beam, trembling, without help.
The second situation was my first solo rappel a couple of days later. After hiking up into the mountains we were offered the opportunity to independently rappel down a rock face. No one would volunteer to go first. I was so scared being near the edge that I could barely speak. So I just put up my hand. With tears rolling down my cheeks I slowly backed over the edge. The kind encouragement and support of the instructor helped me empower myself to do this thing that scared me so much.
I was about ten years old and, over the span of about a week, I had faced my biggest fear head on several times – and learned that I could be in control throughout. This experience continues to define a large part of my life. If you want to hear more about it, invite me out for a beer and ask about transitioning this from a paralyzing fear to becoming a skydiving instructor ten years later. I give an enormous amount of credit to Educo and its staff for helping me reach a place where that was even possible.
Linked here is a quick photo vignette of what “Educo is” (with music by Dave MacLeod, the man who was standing at the bottom waiting for me to finish that first rappel). For a more in-depth look, here is a more comprehensive 11 minute video. Watching the video, you will see that I am not alone in having such a profound experience at this place.
If you have any youth in your life, I HIGHLY recommend giving them the opportunity to have an experience within the environment at Educo. If you don’t have any youth in your life, you can help others have an experience there by donating to the Student Fund (Educo is a registered charitable non-profit entity).