Hello Fear, My Old Companion

“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” – John Muir

We’ve all heard this quote before right? We’ve at least see it on mugs, shirts, and signs made of pallet wood; but it is more than just a catchy phrase. John Muir speaks to those who see this connection between stepping out into nature and opening up our hearts. When I feel overwhelmed, confused, or in need of clarity, that means it’s time to get out into the woods and let that space teach me something.

It was one of those days where the mountains were calling. I answered by driving out to a new section of trail that I hadn’t run before. The low morning sun was shining through the trees, as the crisp mountain air was filling my lungs, renewing me with each breath. The sounds of the city were replaced by the sounds of aspen leaves shaking in the wind, and the birds spouting their melodies to ante another. Then, as if I were scripting this experience myself, I saw a group of deer leaping across the trail ahead of me; queue the soft classical music.

“Are those deer just frolicking through the forest, or fleeing from a predator?” The thought came to me as the deer disappeared into the forest, and like a needle scraping the vinyl, the moment of serenity was interrupted. Now I wouldn’t say that this was an irrational question, I mean this is the wilderness, and we’ve all seen the Discovery Channel. Also, the timing of this encounter comes on the heels of a conversation I had with some friends around a campfire about mountain lions, as they are native to our area. I had learned that though mountain lions are elusive and somewhat skittish of humans, you have likely been watched by one if you’ve spent much time in our surrounding wilderness; this new information was slightly unsettling to say the least. Though I did not see any tangible evidence of the presence of a predator, the mere thought had raised an awareness in me, and this awareness was in the realm of fear.

Oh fear, one of my oldest companions. It has been at the table for so many decisions in my life, providing input whether or not it was requested, and it is multifaceted. On one hand, fear can be my worst enemy, as it keeps me from experiencing something new, taking necessary risks, or even entering into social interaction. On the other hand, fear can save me from unnecessary pain if I heed its call. Fear, it seems, is the tree under which so many of our decisions take place; and it branches between courage and cowardice, wisdom and folly, or what we know versus what we do not. 

Fear as the voice of wisdom. This voice had spoke to me a few years back during a campout with my family and friends. We had just set up camp at this beautiful spot in the aspens, and decided to take a hike while the sun was still up. Life had been somewhat chaotic going into the trip, so it was refreshing being in that space with those people. Toward the end of our hike, we came across this large boulder formation just off the trail; and though everyone was ready to get back to camp, there was this need in me to climb it.

About half way up my ascent, I came across a difficult section that was beyond my bouldering skills. At that moment, fear requested that I turn back, but instead of heeding the call, I kept trying to scale that section. Fear chimed in again, with a voice of reason, “You are with your friends and family in a beautiful place, it is a fulfilling experience; isn’t that good enough?” Something in me could not be satisfied though, so I continued on. I managed to finally scale that section, though I took note to be careful on the descent.

I had finally reached the top of the boulder, and stood with pride, waving to my wife and  kids. On the descent, I found myself stuck again at that very same spot, except that the climb down was much more difficult than the climb up. Fear spoke again, “You should have turned back when I told you, but here we are. Stay calm, be patient, take your time, and you will find the right holds.” I wish I could say that I heeded the voice of wisdom and made it down safely. Instead in a state of panic, I attempted a high risk maneuver, that did not stick.

Instead of walking back to camp, my wife ended up rushing me to the emergency room. Instead of a night of laughter and S’mores, I was in a hospital bed with a neck brace and a busted mouth. Fear had offered wisdom to save me from folly, but I had interpreted it as cowardice. This misunderstanding led me down a long road of recovery and a lesson learned.

A thief named Fear. Fear had stolen my voice for so many years. As a youth, the inability to speak up in the simplest of settings weighed on me like an iron vest. I remember being in fifth grade, sitting at my desk in dread of the upcoming presentation I had to give on Venezuela. I can’t quite explain what exactly I was afraid of, but any time I had to speak in front of a group of people, I would feel terrified. This specific example sticks in my mind, because I pretty much froze when I got up front, and my teacher had to coach me through the presentation. I remember my eyes watering, my face turning red, and my hands sweating; but I also remember feeling like my fear had been justified.

There is a vault full of similar experiences to the one above, when fear had stolen my confidence in what I had to offer. I remember feeling so crippled by fear at times that friends would be trying their hardest to set me up with opportunities, so that all I would have to do is just say yes, or simply extend my hand; and still I would not join in. Opportunities passed by, as I watched in regret of what I should have done.

We are resilient beings though. This understanding and battling against fear is part of what forms our character. Though I can look back with the hindsight view on my many missed opportunities, I can also look back at a multitude of victories where I had stepped into the fear. It was in the moments of stepping in and facing my fears that I found the confidence to take back my voice, and seize opportunities as they arose. The regret of shrinking back in cowardice, triggered shame, but the thrill of overcoming the fear triggered inspiration.

The burden of cowardice had gotten lighter with every act of courage. The thief had to become more cunning if it wanted to steal my voice again, yet it does keep trying. We must remember the thrill of courage, and not let the moments of cowardice define who we are; we must persevere.

Friends with fear. This idea comes from something I had read about pain in Christopher Mcdougall’s book Born to Run.  He quotes Ken Chlouber, the creator of the Leadville 100 mile race: “Make friends with pain, and you will never be alone.” This mindset has helped me go farther on the trails, and it has transformed my mind to anticipate and welcome pain as part of the journey. If we dread the arrival of pain, its presence becomes a burden, and stopping the pain becomes the goal.

By anticipating and accepting pain as part of the experience, two things take place: one, we find the will to endure; and two, we develop a fuller understanding of pain. If all pain is negative, then we will fear all pain, and we will not know which pains are beneficial to us, and which pains are detrimental. Because I know pain very well, I can tell when the pain in my legs is a temporary pain that is part of pushing the limits, and which pains are signals to stop and stretch, or stop and examine my running form.

Understanding our pain helps us understand our limits, and in turn reveals how to stretch those limits. The same goes for fear. Fear does not need to be a monster, it can be a valuable ally throughout the course of life. Wisdom or folly? Courage or cowardice? Knowledge versus ignorance? Though these are only a few examples of the impact and branches of fear, may they empower you to recognize and navigate the fear in your life.



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