Last week’s frightening encounter on my bike got me thinking about some of the previous times I’ve felt fearful. And I realized something about myself. I’m not particularly daring—not when there’s a chance (or even the suggestion of a chance) of physical harm befalling me.
There are few things I do fearlessly. There’s no inner daredevil hiding out inside of me. I will never skydive. I’m not getting on the back of a motorcycle. I don’t find riding rollercoasters thrilling. I don’t want to climb Everest or swim with sharks.
I haven’t always been this way. As a kid I was bold. I hadn’t been hurt much, and so I didn’t know how to fear pain. My timidity developed with age—with each cut that needed stitches, each broken finger (of which there were many), and that dislocated shoulder didn’t help any.
Back when I felt my most beautiful and graceful in pink tights and a tutu, I used to want a motorcycle. Riding the bus on my way home from ballet class, I’d pass a motorcycle shop. And each time I did, I would eye the display and daydream about riding my black Harley.
As a kid I’d climb and run and hang upside-down without fear. Now, when I’m running up or down stairs (say trying to catch the subway), I almost always imagine loosing my footing, falling forward, and knocking out my front teeth. That fear makes me slow down, or at least hold onto the railing.
A number of years ago I was in Puerto Rico with friends, and we decided to go horseback riding. This was going to be a dream realized for me. I thought back to my childhood desire to get on a horse and ride it at full speed. I imagined the sensation of being atop a galloping steed must be akin to flying, and the idea of that thrilled me. But when it came time to actually mount my horse and I realized how high I’d be and that there wasn’t a seatbelt up there (!)—nothing to keep me in place (which I guess is what I thought a saddle was)—all I could think about was falling…and then shortly thereafter getting trampled by the horses behind me. I didn’t feel secure. Forget galloping dramatically across the open terrain, I was afraid to trot or canter.
During a trip to Texas a few months ago, my husband and I rented bikes and, albeit unintentionally, found ourselves off-roading. For the record, I love riding my bike—love it. On a warm or sunny day, I can bike for hours. But I’m a city girl and used to cycling on pavement, preferably in a protected bike lane (i.e., one that is separated from car traffic by more than a line of paint). But this city girl also loves nature. My favorite bike routes take me through tree-saturated parks or along a river. So I thought biking through the woods of suburban Texas would be fun and scenic. However, my scaredy-cat sensibilities were not prepared for what we faced: narrow paths that were too narrow for two bikes moving in opposite directions to pass each other—narrow paths that were full of obstacles like exposed roots, fallen trees, steep declines, malevolently abrupt sharp turns, and other people (some on bikes themselves, others on foot).
And as if all of the obstacles weren’t enough (so many things that I could crash into or that could turn me into an unwilling projectile), the prospect of loosing control and falling was made more frightening by the ravine lying in wait to “catch” me and (at least in my mind) ensure that I broke at least two bones before coming to a complete stop. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times during that bike ride I’d see a sharp turn, steep incline, or felled tree ahead and decide to walk my bike rather than risk one of the worst case scenarios that kept playing on loop in my head. I was full of fear—fear of falling, fear of spraining, dislocating, or breaking, fear of loosing a tooth, fear of flying into a tree, rock or ravine, fear of being impaled by an unfortunately located branch, fear of everything that could possibly hurt me. Fear held me back. Fear kept me from fully enjoying myself and just riding.
I understand that some fear is healthy and normal. Whenever a car starts to drift into the bike lane and gets too close for comfort, I feel a burst of fear. That fear causes a swell in adrenaline, and it prepares me to pedal faster or use my reflexes as needed to avoid impact. But once the threat is gone, so is the worry. That’s the kind of fear I want—the fear that leaves once it’s done its protective duty—the fear that doesn’t stick around after it’s delivered its message of warning. What I’m tired of is the kind of fear that overstays its welcome—the kind of fear that is needy for attention. It gets in the way of a perfectly good time—the kind of fear that is hypochondriacal, obsessive, and paranoid. I want my fear to be a sage advisor, not an irrational adversary. Fear was meant to protect and extend life, not get in the way of living.
The thing I’ve realized about fear is that it only grows when you feed it. And what my fear likes to eat most is my avoidance of it. Fortunately, the reverse is also true. I can starve my fear down to a much less intimidating size just by looking at it, spending time with it, defying it. When I engage my fears, they gradually start to dissipate. For example, even though I was initially disappointed in myself for being too scared during my Texas off-road bike ride to fully enjoy it, because of the risks I did take—every obstacle I rode over and every time I went faster than my hyper-cautious pace—when I got back home to my city cycling routine and its potential perils, I was a noticeably more confident cyclist. For every fear I faced, I am that much less afraid.