By Mattie Sheafor
Fear and I have an uneasy alliance.
The sick feeling in my stomach is uncomfortable, but facing it has always proved beneficial, even productive to me, in the long run.
Climbing is the sport I use to shine light in the dark corners. There is a familiar cadence to this sport for me after all these years. It is a discipline I can lean up against and trust in. Gravity always wins. The rules are clear, if unforgiving.
Fear plays fiercely in this arena. Reigning it to a slow dance rhythm is sometimes the best I manage and I stumble along at that.
When I was younger, I believed that eliminating Fear was the big key to unlocking climbing harder things. I don’t anymore.
I now believe that vanquishing Fear would actually make me more vulnerable: my instincts less keen and my responses less sharp. I’ve come around to believing that I’m better off to know when the stakes are high, to know it to my marrow and try to harness the energy that comes with that for my own ends. It makes sense that Fear helps us evolve, keeps our DNA moving on.
These days I consider Fear to be a rude messenger with screeching volume, piercing intensity, the weight of doubt, and way too much personal knowledge of me. Sounds like a candidate for a restraining order maybe…And while I almost never like how Fear informs me, I have come to believe that I deny its news at my peril.
We can probably agree. A clear assessment of exposure followed with recognition of consequences goes a long way toward good judgment. It’s important to know how many chips are on the table when you are digesting the hand you’ve been dealt. Often just as you get your head around the realities of the situation…Voila! That potent Fear cocktail is already coursing through your bloodstream.
Your mouth goes dry, leg starts shaking, water sprouts from every pour. Thoughts bounce rapidly in all directions. Self doubt, recrimination, anxiety…all manner of creatures that live quietly under the bed come out screaming. It’s loud and mean and battering.
How to keep steady? How to avoid freezing up or is opposite cousin, blindly rush through a minefield of consequences. Fight or Flight??!!!!
Keep your head. Stay in control.
You chose how to respond to Fear. Not the other way around. You can always hold your center. Identify what is still working in your favor. Sort a strategy to turn quickly the tide.
Lose your center to Fear and all is lost. This is a sure thing. Like gravity, another clear, unforgiving, rule.
Best to look Fear in the eye and find out what it has for me. The uncomfortable arise and wash over me. I listen and answer each in turn, calm as I can. Not easy.
I use a checklist to organize concerns and options. Big stuff has the most momentum. Identify what might kill you first, and work your way through it.
Change the trajectory of just one thing and you might change the situation. You have saved yourself or your partner from big consequences. You can “thank” Fear for making you aware of the opportunity.
Even before the precipice, in the planning stages of adventure, Fear can play a helpful role.
Canadian climber, boater, and pilot, Will Gadd, calls it the “positive power of negative thinking”. Will considers and thinks through possible negative outcomes in advance of an event. He proactively uses Fear for productive purposes. His mind throws out all these riveting, creative, anxiety driven problems and he gets the opportunity to use his intellect and experience to solve them ahead of time!
When you put yourself in a stressful situation Fear will join you. So it goes. Expect it. Train for it. Do your homework, run through every possible scenario, keep your sense of humor and mental flexibility. Then buckle up, or pull down, as climbers say, and give it everything, knowing you’re not alone, that Fear is certainly in the seat beside you waiting to pounce. All fine, as long as you hold the wheel.
Fear arrives when I’m climbing and I grudgingly admit it in. Fear almost always brings something useful, even though I still resent its presence.
I feel Fear when I say goodbye to the climbers I care about, hardly matters if they are bound for Mt. Foraker or Lander. I Fear losing them and this is based on painful experience. Fear reminds me that I need to tell them how I feel while I have them in front of me, that I need make the best use of my time and energy-and live it.
Without Fear in my life I might live in a narrower space, not the broader one I seek.