Friday, May 28, 2021

Fear of Falling

I'm not afraid of anything. I've said it many times. Sounds rather arrogant. Perhaps I overstep, but honestly, fear is an emotion I have largely learned to manage. It wasn't always that way. I grew up fearful of a lot of things – snakes under the bed at night, bears in the closet, bullies at school, intimidating teachers, public speaking, relations with girls, and so on. But sometime during my service in the the Marine Corps I chose to change my perspective and master my fear response. Since then I have been in many fearful situations, real and imaginary, and through experience and practice I have honed my reaction to the world around me and learned to hold steady at insecure times.

With fear seemingly rampant in the last year and a half during this pandemic contrivance, I have given fear more thought as it invades my space more and more by those around me. It is always an option, especially when I play in high places, but I have learned that it does not serve me well, so I gravitate to other mechanisms to deal with challenging circumstances.

Aside from the instinctive fight-or-flight response, fear is essentially a thought or even an attitude. Since we each chose how we perceive the world, our thoughts and attitudes become the foundation for how we interpret what we perceive as reality. Ultimately, it is our thoughts, imagination, and attitudes which create the world we believe we perceive. Therefore, it behooves us to guard what we think about and what plays in our imagination at all times.

Consider that fear really only exists in our imagination. Without our ability to imagine our place in the future, to work out the consequences of a particular possible outcome in all its gruesome details, we would all be fearless. Those who survive serious car crashes, drownings, avalanches, and long falls from high places generally relate that it all happened so quickly that they did not have time to be afraid while the event was taking place. It's as if so much is happening to you, your mind is being bombarded with so much information that you have no time to imagine an outcome. Survivors tell of things seeming to happen in slow motion, as if the speed at which the mind is operating is affecting the actual perception of time.

However the future unfolds, it is simply a matter of fact, an emotionless reality. What will be will be. It is only what is happening at this very instant that should concern us. All any of us can do is experience the present moment, the now. Any extrapolation of the now into an unknown future is purely imaginary. Deprived of the ability to imagine the future, we would all be fearless. Suddenly, there would be nothing to be scared of. You wouldn't ponder the significance of death or what it might feel like or what happens to you.

In a cataclysmic accident of fall, when things happen so quickly, there is no time to project the imagination into the future. We lose the future, but we also lose the past. Losing all possible reasons for fear, you can't imagine what you might lose or what you might become. Time is frozen during such times of immediate crisis; there is no time to draw emotional conclusions. I'm falling fast. I'm about to die. This is it. That is the reality of the moment, one in which there is no time for the frivilous luxury of fear.

Fear, like balance, in not inherent; it is a learned response. Even the fight-or-flight response is not instinctive; it is a carefully learned response. Anything that can be learned can be unlearned. That is what I figured out during the time I was engaged in the challenges of military training.

Fear can be controlled, rationalized away, understood for what it is, and ignored. All of us do it to some degree, but some are better at it than others. Should you cross the intersection or will you let your impulsive imagination hold you back from action out of fear for what might happen?

Still, fear is a positive, helpful mechanism. It warns us all of the time – watch out here, look out there, slow down, don't do that, mind your step – without which you would likely soon be dead. In a world full of loud, conflicting information continually hammering our minds, it is good to have fear as a sentinel in our minds, always vigilant for the accident waiting to happen, alert for the slightest sign of danger.

The trick is to sample fear. Select the fear that you want or need to react to and get rid of the rest. Examine each fear as it presents itself, understand just what it is warning you about, and then act accordingly. As a mountain climber, one who chooses to play in a world of life and death choices, I operate continually in a state of controlled fear. Only when the level of fear becomes intolerable do I back off when I know I am reaching my limits. At any given moment while climbing I will do whatever action is necessary to avoid fear's alarm, whether it be lunge for a new handhold, retreat, or remain motionless. I will not do something if there is a fear there that I cannot control. Perhaps it is only my belief in control that keeps me moving forward. If a moment arises where I suspect I am losing control, then I know that fear is edging into that fragile balance between my sanity and insanity.

While most people have a fear of death, it is the archetypal forms of dying like drowning, falling, or burning that terrify us most, even though most people have absolutely no experience with coming close to dying these ways. Our imaginations take over and imagine the worst pain and terror during numbing events like crashing a car or plunging down a mountainside when in reality they happen so fast there is no time for emotion. If anything, a catastrophic experience like these is generally experienced as a deep calm resignation of utter helplessness and an emotionally bereft profound knowing that there is absolutely nothing at all we can do . At least that has been my experience with near death episodes of drowning, falling, and severe physical trauma.

Uncontrolled fear is very destructive, gnawing away at the fabric of sanity, screwing one into a frightful aching state of anxiety. Am I good enough? Will I hold up when things get tough? Will I crack under pressure? Will I disappoint? Am I good looking enough? Are my children safe? Am I a failure? Will I appear boring or foolish? Do people like me? Where will I get the money I need to pay the bills this month? There is nothing but sickness in this sort of worry and fear, a sickness of the mind that is nonconstructive and produces no answers or resolution, leaving you in a helpless anguishing limbo. At least with archetypal fears there is the fight-or-flight reaction where adrenaline moves you to act, confronting whatever the terror immediately.

In all that I do in life I chose my fear willingly. I embrace the future and everything it throws at me with open arms and a clear mind, confident that I can control my emotions and succeed. I no longer have parental anxiety, or doubts about business decisions, and no longer identify with the world of the lonely or heartsick. Indulging in these kinds of fears holds us prisoner. They are penance for thinking too much. I say I am not afraid of anything, but what I really mean to say is I am free and in control.

One of the reasons I enjoy climbing mountains is that I can leave behind the world of anxiety. When facing challenges moment to moment on a climb there is no time or room for such unproductive distraction. All that matters as you step forward or reach for another handhold is surviving. Anything other than focus on the moment erodes confidence and may compromise survival. It is a pure and simple way to engage the world.

Living for the moment, for nothing but the present, brings with it an unexpected bonus. It allows one to escape the need to know the future and frees one from the constraints of the past. An absolute freedom arises from living in the moment. Managing simply to exist affords one a greater freedom than one could possibly imagine otherwise. The moment is the only real world worth living in. Anything beyond that is deceptive – including hopes, dreams, ambitions, and expectations.

I attempt to bring the essence of living in the moment back from the mountains to experience in everyday life under every circumstance. I accept a high degree of risk in the mountains and in daily life and fully take responsibility for every outcome. I attempt to bring this into every action I take, knowing full well that I am in control, steering the boat, creating my own reality moment to moment.

There are special moments in the mountains, and in life, fragile transient times, when the borders between life and death seem to overlap, when the past and future cease to exist, and all that remains is freedom... when you seem able to spread your wings and fly to eternity without a care. Edging along the fragile connection between life and death, sometimes it is as if I am immortal, neither alive nor dead. I look upon such fearless moments as being heaven, Nirvana, enlightenment... magical. And so I return again and again to this very real world to taste the nectar of infinity. Fear is all that stands in the way of sharing all of this with more people.

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