My friend Dayna just finished thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, a 2,160-mile trail that goes from Maine to Georgia in the eastern United States. I’ve been following along with her blog posts throughout the summer and fall, and they’ve always been fun to read, but the last one was spectacular. In it she talks about fear. She hiked the trail alone, and she talks in that final blog post about how afraid other people were for her safety when they found out that she was hiking alone.
Go read the post. It’s one of the best things I’ve read in a long time.
I think it’s helpful to think about fear in the context of rock climbing, and there are two types of fear that I’ve seen or experienced when climbing. The first is when I’ve been in dangerous situations and thought to myself, “I will die if I fall here. DO NOT FALL.” It’s a productive fear. It warns me that I’m in danger. It sharpens my senses and focuses my mind on the task at hand.
The second kind of fear is one I’ve often seen in others, usually people I’m taking out for their first or second climbing adventure. They get fifteen feet off the ground and their leg starts shaking. Their forearms are getting tired. They can feel that a fall is coming, and they freeze. They can’t move. They’re paralyzed by the fear of falling, even though there is no real reason to be afraid. I’ve got the climber belayed on a toprope, so if they were to let go, they would gently fall a couple of feet at most.
The root of the problem in the second scenario is that the person has no experience, no prior point of reference. This person has never fallen while rock climbing and doesn’t know that it is usually a completely painless process. The fear stems from ignorance, not willful or through any character fault, but simply through lack of experience.
Once you’ve fallen a bunch of times and realized that you’re still alive and well after each fall, falling becomes trivial. There are still times when you simply can’t allow yourself to fall because the consequences are severe, but otherwise, falling in rock climbing is routine. I’m always amused when people ask me if I’ve ever fallen while rock climbing. Uh, yeah. Almost every time I go out. To them, falling is unthinkable. To me, it’s not a big deal.
And here’s the kicker. You need to fall in rock climbing in order to become a better climber, because falling is a result of pushing your limits, and that’s where the real grown and progress is. So not only is the fear of falling unjustified, it’s actually actively harmful because it keeps you from progressing.
This kind of fear is what the fearmongers and naysayers deal in. It’s not rooted in self-preservation but in ignorance (and in these cases it often is willful). People warned Dayna about hiking in the woods alone because they had never spent any serious amount of time hiking in the woods alone and didn’t know what it was really like. The people who dismiss rock climbing as crazy and dangerous are the people who have never rock climbed. The people who ask me whether I’m afraid to travel alone (which I’m sure I’d hear way, waaaay more often if I were a girl) are the ones who have never traveled alone. I feel sorry for these people. A life lived through secondhand information has got to be a hollow one.
Dayna’s blog post made me angry. It made me angry that so many people tried to scare her out of doing something she really wanted to do and was set on doing. It made me angry that more people weren’t supportive. It almost made me angry enough to want to go out and start raising up a brood of daughters of my own just so that I could start adding more data points to prove to the world how scary and dangerous the world isn’t. Because that’s really the crux of the whole thing. The world is not a scary place. It is not full of weirdos and baddies. Everyone that isn’t trying to tell you about all the different ways you’ll die is actually pretty great.
The only thing to really fear is not fear itself, but people telling you what to be afraid of.