The fear of fear


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Category: Reflections Date: 05 Jan 04


"Suffering, I was beginning to think, was essential to a good life, and as inextricable from such a life as bliss. It's a great enhancer. It might last a minute, or a month, but eventually it subsides, and when it does, something else takes its place, and maybe that thing is a greater space. For happiness. Each time I encountered suffering, I believed that I grew, and further defined my capacities-not just my physical ones, but my interior ones as well, for contentment, friendship, or any other human experience.


The real reward for pain is this: self-knowledge. If I quit, however, it would have lasted forever, that surrender, even the smallest act of giving up, would have stayed with me for the duration. When you felt like quitting you had to ask yourself which you would rather live with."


Lance Armstrong-champion cyclist, cancer survivor in his book Every Second Counts.


Last year's resolution was to conquer fears. But here I was on a flight from New York to Trinidad paralysed with fear. Every bump in the sky sent my heart shooting out of my mouth, my feet were cold, my palms sweating. I counted every second of that four-and-a-half-hour flight. My son showed me a fuchsia ball in the sky and I gulped, thinking of falling out. My daughter said "look we are so high up that we can see the horizon of a new day", pointing at the white rim around the curved blue and I was too frozen to respond to her marvel.


There were other fears to conquer: the fear of snakes, dogs, deep water, bicycles, and then the flurry of fears human beings are hard wired and condemned to feel: fear of failure, of change, of loss, of atrophy. There is also finally the fear of fear.


The bumps stopped and I allowed my mind to wander to New Year's Eve in Toronto spent quietly in an apartment overlooking a park, flickering night shadows on bare wintry trees.


At about three in the morning-after we watched on TV, the wild-eyed, flushed elation of crowds watching a ball drop, a drag queen slide down an eight-foot shoe; after we'd drunk water to wash down the wine and the rosemary and pepper lamb and picked up the last crumb of dessert we turned to one another in the warm, flickering light and asked "what is your New Year's resolution?" The men were rah rah as men are and said things like "to stay the way I am (because I'm perfect) or "to ask for directions". But the women weren't taking that and the way they showed it was by being incredibly fearless. "I'd like to find a life partner," said one woman, without blinking, confident she was amongst friends who would help and not judge her.


"I'd like to quit smoking, lose 20 pounds and have a baby," said another woman. "I want to remember that every minute spent worrying or fearing is a moment lost in life and I want to write my book."


Everything the women said was measurable, but more scarily, open to failure. Babies and husbands and books don't just happen. They have to do with battling all kinds of fears and perhaps being ridiculed and found wanting.


So, tired of the men's hedging, one woman turned to the men and said "What are you so AFRAID of?" and then because the late hour and the friendship and the wine allow us to take all sorts of liberties, to be less fearless than we normally are- answered the question to their yawning and feeling of tiredness and general subterfuge. "I know-you are afraid to be vulnerable" and as if that weren't enough she ploughed on, "you are afraid to be vulnerable because you think you'll get hurt".


Then the atmosphere in the room changed. It was as if the worst thing you could say was said, and there was nothing left to hide. It came out then. The husbands wanted to be the best they could be. The bachelor wanted to leave city life and live in a farm with lovely landscape. They were finally real.


Thinking of this on the aircraft that was getting a little bumpy again, sending my heart lurching but not yet to my mouth, I thought that courage has nothing to do with being thick-skinned and everything to do with leaving yourself open to falling-off a bike, out of the sky, in the ice. It has to do with taking chances, and being open to failure. So I had kept last year's resolution after all.


And so in the sky I saw an image of a long corridor and a series of doors-we walk through each one stripped to the skin, down to the bone, be it changing jobs, or cities, bodies or partners, building bridges or walking alone and every time we emerge victorious we gain a little more courage. That's what Lance Armstrong means about suffering. It carves out more space for happiness.


Happy New Year.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur