I’ve been a camp counselor all this week, and I’ve seen a lot of shirts with cool sayings. “It’s always a race” was one, “you just found awesome” another, and then yesterday on the back of a sweaty kid’s t-shirt, “I swim, what’s your superpower?”
I thought it was funny at the time, and thought of the cool stuff that could be listed as a superpower. But then today came and today got me thinking about fear and how limiting it is to people…to others, to me. Sometimes if you work with kids long enough, you can recognize your own struggles in others. So I’ve been talking to someone who’s very afraid of doing lots of things…the fear is so strong it freezes her and she can’t continue. It got me thinking about growing up and all my overpowering fears. I would now have been diagnosed with anxiety disorder but at that time I was just the kid that hid behind mom’s skirt. I decided to make a list of the things I was most afraid of. Escalators are number 1 in the list by far. I was so afraid I would be squished between belt and metal and die. My mom had to hold my hand and I had to jump on and off. Number two was bridges. Namely walking across them. There was a big bridge that crossed the Fox River in Ottowa, Ill. where I grew up. It had a nice walkway that I had regular nightmares about. I would walk out into the middle, the metal would give way, and I’d fall to my death. Mom had to hold my hand. I was terrified of swimming. I had a particular fear of putting my head in the water–it would get up my nose and I’d die. Mom forced me to take swim lessons at the Y. I learned to swim, though even today unless I really focus, I swim with my head up. I was so scared of spiders and had nightmares about them. I’d be bitten and die. I was so afraid of heights and falling–the first time I had to repel in the army I kept moving back in the line and when it was my turn I sobbed for what seemed like a very long time and went over the side of the tower crying. I obviously thought I’d fall and die. I finally decided a few years ago to work on my fear of heights and falling and began working on the ropes courses at the USNWC. Zip lines, tight ropes, sketchy looking bridges. I did them all. I even jumped from four stories–all without dying.
When I was little I wouldn’t talk to people. You might end up talking to the wrong person, and then you could…you know, die. I had nightmares about scary people.
My mom made me, at every restaurant, order her tea refills. I would get so angry with her for doing that, but my mom was also my partner. She held my hand until I could and that is what I remember. My mom isn’t perfect, and we are very different, but by holding my hand and making me do stuff she taught me to be brave. I did the same for Madison at a friend’s lake house one summer when all her friends were enjoying the water and she was afraid of the lake. I sat next to her and I just calmly said, “I know you are afraid, but I also know you want to have fun with your friends, so I will just sit here and wait until you are ready.”
But yes, I know fear. Fear is sometimes so illogical and dumb. For instance I’ve not once seen a news story of someone getting smashed inside an escalator. Your body doesn’t fit in there. But I could envision it, a shoestring getting caught and before you know what happened, you’re a goner, caught in those awful teeth of death. And yet I ride my bike in traffic daily and I hardly ever experience fear in that place…in that fast paced noisy world of balance and motion where many people are terrified, I’m fine.
Fear has stopped me cold. I never thought about fear being difficult to watch in another person, but it is. You can see how very big it is that it can stop a person from doing something they very much want to do. When you have anxiety like that you can’t even figure out why everyone else can manage, and you can’t. And also you think to yourself, “this time I’ll do it.” And you get to that spot and it stops you cold again.
I wanted to somehow share this today…to just be honest about my secret superpower of fear. How it was so big it sometimes stopped me…or would have but for the handhold. But then I saw the picture above. A very cool friend of mine, Kellie, makes tcool jewelry and art from up-cycled bike parts. And I thought about bravery. Every time we stand up to the BIG fear, maybe we chip away at it a little. Even if this time I can’t walk the rope, I will keep getting in line until I can. One day I will step off. The first time I did a ropes course at the USNWC I was sure I couldn’t make it because the first thing I had to do was to step off the platform onto a two foot log. I really didn’t want to die. Madison still gets a kick out of the odd way I get on and off escalators. I look down and watch carefully and take a deep breath and when I’m ready, I put my foot out and start moving forward. Bravery isn’t the absence of fear remember? Being brave is doing the thing of which you are most afraid. “Be Brave” means you step out anyway.