As I shared in a post last year, Fear has surrounded me like a thin yet impenetrable veil, preventing me from stepping out into my own life. From the youngest age I can remember, I was cautious. Worried. Timid. Scared.
I didn’t brave the outdoors like so many of the other children did and, because of a deep natural sense of fear, I was very careful about all of my actions and behaviors. I didn’t run because I was afraid to fall. I didn’t explore because I was afraid to get lost. I didn’t ask children to be my friend because I was afraid they would say no. It’s never been clear if this was nature or nurture but there’s no doubt that I embodied an innate sense of fear that inhibited me.
My fear manifested itself most overtly in things that seemed dangerous. At age 8, I was at Busch Gardens with my aunt and uncle in Florida and my uncle insisted that we traverse the park in a tram that hung from a wire about two stories above the ground. I was terrified. I sobbed and pleaded with him to let me walk the distance but he insisted. Surely, he was equally annoyed by my crying and whining and determined to help me overcome my fears. I crawled onto the floor of the gondola and refused to peak out over the sides in order to pretend that we were not gliding high above the heads of the other park patrons. I shuddered and cowered in the corner, crying quietly as we dangled and danced along the wire. And, when we finally arrived at the other side of the park, a very small part of me realized that it was not as bad as it seemed but the fear was so deeply rooted and so intense that I could not surrender and push myself harder. A variation of that same experience has occurred again and again in my life. I rarely would take the risks required to try something new. I resisted change for fear of the unknown. I hung onto relationships that had long since stopped being meaningful out of worry that I would not be able to survive the loss. I focused my energies on creating the safest, most predictable life I could muster.
But, of course, there was nothing safe about my life. Nothing predictable. Everything about my life was chaotic and required me to summon up courage. And, it was not until I recognized that fact that I was able to begin to tackle my fears. Much like Dorothy, who is reminded by Glenda the Good Witch that she had the power all along, I had to experience the epiphany and constantly be reminded that I am brave and do, indeed, tackle fears every day, in order to begin to release myself from the paradigm that I so carefully constructed in my mind.
Over the past few years I have been very deliberate about paying attention to fear and trying to understand the root causes. I have turned up the volume and tuned in to listen to the signals that evoke behavior that is motivated by fear. I have been on fear patrol. And, whenever possible, I have sought out opportunities to tackle my fears – face them head-on and stand up rather than lie down. Fear continues to manifest itself in so many different parts of my life that is has required a full mental militia in order to guard all the borders before fear can make its way across the line. Yet, no army is indestructible and there are always weak links. For me, those vulnerabilities often allow fear to seep in and attack when I am not looking.
Yesterday was one of the days that I waged war against my fears. For the second year in a row, I chose to participate in a mud run. Last year, I agreed to do it because of a combination of peer pressure from my friends and the desire to test myself and see what I was truly capable of. However, I took a measured approach. I thoroughly researched the race, studied the layout of the course, familiarized myself with the obstacles, read every blog post I could find from first-time adventurers and worked out religiously to try to get myself in the best shape possible. I was terrified but committed. As someone who has never been particularly athletic and would mostly describe myself as out-of-shape, it was a herculean task to physically prepare myself for feats that I never imagined I was capable of. I could barely run a 5K (I had completed one just a month before the mud run in order to help prepare myself) and I did not have extraordinary upper body strength which was clearly a necessity when climbing and pulling my body weight through muddy trenches. When I began the race last year, my stomach was in knots and, despite my preparation, I really had no idea what I was in store for. Even though I knew I could walk around any obstacle that was too difficult, I was committed to completing everything and would have been disappointed in myself if I chickened out. My fear of heights came into play as I climbed a 20 foot spider web rope wall, maneuvering my far-from lithe body over the narrow bar at the top and securing my footing to carefully travel down the other side. As I rang the bell at the top of that obstacle, I had tears in my eyes because I knew that I had overcome so much to get up there and I was feeling so proud. I finished the race and was exhilarated. I couldn’t wait to try again. I had tackled some huge fears.
Yesterday was a little bit of a different experience for me. While I was admittedly running a more challenging course with harder obstacles and longer running stretches, I had a certain familiarity and comfort with what to expect. It was no longer an unknown quantity to me. However, I did not prepare the same way I did last year. I didn’t have the time to commit to working out and preparing my body for the test. And, just days ago, while participating in a fitness class, I felt nauseous and thoroughly unprepared for any type of workout. I was worried. I was less fearful of the obstacles and more concerned about my body letting me down. I was disappointed in myself that I had not taken this more seriously but, in fact, I was extremely busy tackling some other huge fear obstacles in my life (more to come on that later) and simply did not have the bandwidth to focus on this. As we were approaching the chute, getting ready for our wave to start, I was so excited and pumped up by the energy of the crowd, the pulsing beat of the music and the announcer, entertaining us and getting us prepared for our launch out of the gate. At the same time, I felt a little disappointed that I did not take this event more seriously. I undermined the importance of it and how significantly it impacts my well-being. The amount of confidence and pride derived from taking part in this race, for me, is extraordinary. Prior to last year I would never have imagined that I would be leading a pack of friends through the trail (well, ultimately, dragging behind the pack but I was leading in spirit!) and tackling the course. Metaphorically, every challenge that has stymied me in my life is represented in every one of the obstacles laid out on that track. I wished I had been more intentional and I knew I had the opportunity to kill it so I focused in on that.
The race was definitely more challenging and, this time, there were several height obstacles that gave me pause as I lined up waiting to make the ascent. No butterflies in my stomach, no major anxiety but, instead, a concern that my body simply would not comply. I never allowed myself to think about how scared I might be to look down from the top of the spider web where we needed to crawl through the woven ropes in order to get to the other side and travel back down. At one point, I watched as a woman ahead of me in line, trying to muster up the courage to jump off a 6 foot ledge into an unknown depth of muddy water, struggled to find the courage to close her eyes and jump. I cheered her on, offering to jump with her because I was equally afraid. She refused my offer, bravely taking the plunge and leaving me staring down into the depths of the tank. I sat down on the ledge for a moment, thinking that a shorter leap would be easier and thought otherwise and stood back up. I let go. I released the fear, closed my eyes and took the leap. In the few seconds it took for me to hit the water, I soared – so proud, so joyful, so liberated.
There were no tears this year but, instead, an extraordinary sense of accomplishment. I was not prepared for this race but I did not let that stop me. I did not let the burden of pushing myself up steep hills or squeezing myself into small tunnels piled high with mud stop me from completing my task. I found myself, jogging through one of the open, sunny valleys of the trail, realizing that nothing else existed except me and my body and my need to push towards the next feat. Gone was the fear and all that was left was a purpose and a sense of serenity. I was taking my chance and enjoying every moment of it.
So, until next year when I commit to brave the course again (perhaps a little more prepared this time) and I try to lead others to overcome their fears, I am going to use this as a reminder of what I am capable of. I am going to expand the metaphor of the muck and the ropes and recognize that there is no obstacle that can hold me back. I will continue to let go of outdated beliefs and shed unnecessary baggage. I will retire relationships that no longer work. I will believe in my value and strength as it applies to every aspect of my life and bravely move into lanes that often seem dangerous or leading to unknown destinations. And I will continue to respect the words that found me last year:
I thought maybe
if I wrote the words down,
read them every day,
traced them with my fingers…
I could live them.
I could let go of this “maybe” life,
and be brave enough to say yes…
brave enough to say no.
And then, in all the uncertainty,
around me, I could be certain
of this, that I was brave
enough to love, to laugh…
to cry…to be me…that I was brave
enough to really live.
With courage, I will let go and move forward.