On Fear

Hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire has many advantages—among them are seeing incredible beauty and experiencing a vigorous day of exercise. Often as my mind clears, my hikes have something to teach me, too. Yesterday’s hike up Mt. Garfield taught a few important lessons about fear.

It had been raining steadily for the past few weeks; the water level in the brooks was significantly higher than usual. When we came to our first brook crossing, my son and daughter didn’t hesitate; they saw the way, hopped on rocks, and crossed quickly.

Not so for my wife and me. We tentatively began to cross; and although we saw the rocks the kids used, the swiftly flowing water unnerved us both. We stood there about a third of the way across the brook unable to hop to the next rock. I knew I was placing too much significance on my fearful thoughts; and my thoughts, not the brook, were blocking my way forward.

I have experienced this phenomenon before, and I’ve learned to compensate for it. Usually when I approach a brook, I try to do what my kids do—swiftly move across without thinking. Mental processing of a course of action slows down physical acuity. There is all the difference between a prudent assessment of a situation and muscle-tightening fear. The former protects you from harm; the latter causes harm.

In The Fear Book, Cheri Huber points out that “much of what we call fear is thought.”  On yesterday’s hike, I was thinking more thoughts than were necessary to cross the brook safely. Every thought beyond assessing a safe path was getting in the way.

We finally did get across, although my hesitation caused me to lose my balance and almost fall in the brook.

The final approach to the summit of Mt. Garfield is a steep, rocky scramble. As often is the case, it is easier to scramble up than down a rock face. As we were making our way up, a young couple was making their way down. The woman was clearly new to hiking. She very tentatively picked her way down the rocky slope; she was frightened. She gently called out to her partner, “Andrew, please don’t get too far ahead of me. I need to be able to see where you are stepping.”

I sensed something very interesting about this young woman. She was frightened, and she was not allowing her fear to influence her enjoyment of the situation. Sometimes I encounter couples whose thoughts I can almost hear: One will be thinking “I am so miserable. This is the last time I’m doing this with you!” The young woman on the trail yesterday was not choosing misery. She was frightened and enjoying the outing.

Now that may not sound remarkable, but it is. It seemed to me that the young woman was having a tough time and not adding a story to her tough time. She wasn’t thinking, “I hate hiking. I have better things to do with my time.” She wasn’t thinking, “Andrew is such a jerk for taking me here.” She wasn’t thinking, “Why is this so hard for me? What’s wrong with me?” The fact that she wasn’t adding a story onto her experience allowed her experience simply to be.

When we create stories to go with our fear, our fear become hardened and entrenched. In contrast, I have little doubt that after the young couple got beyond the steep scramble, they enjoyed the rest of their hike together. They are probably looking forward to their next adventure.

Cheri Huber asks us to question the belief “that being afraid keeps [us] from doing something dangerous or just dumb.” Huber argues that, in reality, “fear is protecting itself against us.” She encourages us to not treat fear as “a signal that something is going on” but rather as a “force with an agenda of its own.” That force is our ego.

For example, often before teaching a class, I feel some anxiety arising. If I simply allow the anxiety to be, it quickly vanishes as my attention turns to the class. If, however, I believe that the anxiety is providing me important feedback about my external circumstances, my mind will be filled with thoughts: “How am I doing? What are they thinking of me? How do I get rid of these uncomfortable feelings?” There is literally no end to the varieties of fear inducing thoughts.

Seen in this light, we can see why Huber says fear has a self-protective agenda of its own. If I believe my fears, I act in a way that strengthens my fears. In other words, the ego uses fear to prove itself correct. If I stand in front of a class with my head filled with anxious thoughts, I will have a miserable experience—and my ego will use that experience to confirm that my fearful, anxious thoughts were correct in the first place.

Fear is not our friend. Via our thoughts, we alone maintain our fears; we alone can make another choice.

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