I've been thinking a lot about the nature of fear, since going to the Canada's Wonderland Hallowe'en Haunt on the weekend. I'd been working on a blog post about how fear in fitness can hold you back, about the difference between fear-for-fun, frivolous fear, and being afraid of things that can really happen. Comparing zombies and clowns to climbing, falling, and failing.
And then Wednesday in Ottawa happened.
The perspective on fear changed, a little. But only a very little.
It now seems even more important to face fears head-on and acknowledge that they primarily exist when there is a void of hope and trust.
Let me back up and start from the beginning: Canada's Wonderland on the weekend, in all its Hallowe'en themed after-dark creepiness. I don't get spooked easily. The outward demonstrations of fear that lots of people have - screaming, jumping, grabbing on to things, pushing past people when running away to safety - I don't seem to have these reactions when watching scary movies or walking through Hallowe'en-style "haunted" attractions. It's not like I'm actively trying to be brave or hold myself together, it really just doesn't phase me. I get that for lots of people it's fun to be scared that way. For me, the fun is in noticing the details put in to the sets, or being transported to an imaginary place. But the blood, clowns, zombies, vampires and axe-wielding asylum patients don't scare me.
Because they're not real. And on every level, my psyche knows it.
There are enough things in this world to truly be afraid of. The things that go bump in the night seem trivial in comparison.
One of the friends I was with said, "You need to let go a little, let yourself get scared. Get into it. Have fun!" I thought I was having fun! It simply didn't look the same as how they were having fun. And part of that was because I respond to discomfort with laughter and humour. When one of the costumed characters attached themselves to me, following closely behind me through their portion of the maze-like Louisiana swamp attraction, I knew they were there, and eventually turned around to my group and joked, "look! I made a friend!" Another one made me pause because she yelled "you're being rude!" and I almost turned around to say "oh my gosh, I'm so sorry" (I felt bad!) - until it registered that she was saying "you're being rude for leaving us!" and it was just part of the attraction. Many of the players whose job it was to jump out from behind corners or from the nooks and crannies backed off quickly when I looked them in the eye and smiled. It was my knee-jerk reaction to do that. Habit, I guess.
I literally looked "fear" in the eye and killed it with kindness.
I started to really make the connection and think about fear during one of the shows that we stopped to see at the Hallowe'en Haunt, at Wonderland. Called "Toxicity" it was a half-hour performance of physical prowess, done on a dystopian set of green lights and toxic waste garbage cans. Dancers and gymnasts put on a great show, but I was in awe of the complete control they had over every muscle in their body. There was beauty in it, even in the contortionist who managed to get shoulders and elbows going in directions that felt inhuman. As I watched the athletes fly through the air and land on their feet, I was apprehensive. Like watching figure skaters stick the landing, hoping they don't fall, I realized that for me fear has a lot to do with what MIGHT happen. Injury. Pain. Death.
In other words, I am afraid of things that could realistically happen, because they have in the past, but they probably won't happen. I'm afraid only of the possibilities that I believe in.
The previous night I had walked home, alone, from an Oktoberfest venue. No fear. I was in a familiar area, the neighbourhood I'd grown up in, and I felt completely safe despite the very late hour. It could have been a rational response to watch behind me or be anxious as I walked down a quiet street, but since nothing has ever happened to me directly, to people close to me, or in that area, I was not afraid. Apparently, I feel like I can handle myself and strangers don't frighten me! I trust in my ability to deal with that kind of situation and moreover I trust in the inherent goodness of people. On the other hand, I don't trust my body. Which is why fear and anxiety had kicked in earlier that morning when I was at the rock climbing gym. It may have had something to do with being tired and dehydrated from the Saturday night Oktoberfesting, but climbing on Sunday morning wasn't stellar because I was shaky from nerves. Would get half way up a climb and then stop, feeling the need to come back down. I didn't trust my feet or my arms to keep me safe.
Fear comes down to trust, and hope. The things we fear are usually related to what has happened in the past, and it's a reaction to what we know could happen, no matter how unlikely. Fear is formed by the story we tell ourselves, and an absence of hope or trust.
As I watched the performers on Sunday evening, then, I was thinking back to the morning's climbing and realized that I am also afraid of potential. It was simply amazing, what these people had conditioned their bodies to do, through years of dedicated practice, and I feared that I have - that we ALL have - that kind of potential. And I'm not living up to it.
That's a rather terrifying thought.
If I could be more, do more - why am I not?
Later that evening, as we lined up for the first of the roller coaster rides (the Leviathan), anxiety kicked in again. It wasn't a fear of heights or speed or imminent death. It was whether I would fit in to the ride at all. See, the last time I had been to Canada's Wonderland was in 2005, and I had sat in a roller coaster for which they could not lock the safety bar over my belly, and I had to get off the ride. In front of my friends, in front of a long line of strangers. It was humiliating, and I was remembering that feeling as I looked around to see if anyone as large, or bigger, than me was on the ride. I held my breath as they pushed the safety bar down and it locked into place. Only then did I allow myself to think about the ride that was to come, and by then it was too late: we were on our way to a vertical drop that had us flying out of our seats! I remembered why I don't love roller coasters, at that point. Some things are not simply mind-over-matter and as much as I want to be a thrill-seeking ride lover, my motion-sick stomach says otherwise. I only did 3 rides before saying "I think I better stay on the ground, or the car ride home won't be pretty." But I was able to get past the fear of fitting in to the seats.
Rational versus irrational fear. We're afraid of what could happen, what might happen, and that's okay - as long as it doesn't hold us back. It was fear that kept me from jumping up on to a tire. It was fear that stopped me from climbing to the top of the wall. It was fear of not fitting in to a ride seat that kept me from going back to the amusement park for nearly a decade.
And it will be fear which will direct our collective responses in the coming weeks and months, in Canada. Parliament was breached. A soldier was killed. There is reasonable and rational fear now, where before there wasn't. Terror hadn't been front and centre for most Canadians because it hadn't happened in this way on home soil until now. But the actions of a few shouldn't keep the masses from living our lives to the fullest potential. Let's remember that the response to the shooting was swift and that things happened exactly the way they were supposed to.
Every day, in every way, we have to face fears - whatever they may be. The best way to do it is to be prepared, but not paralyzed. Look for the beauty in the grotesque. Find the humour in the madness. See the good behind the bad. Find hope. Trust in ourselves and in others. In fitness, that means that I'll continue conditioning myself and strengthening my muscles, so that each time I climb or each time I jump, I can reduce the fear of pain and injury just a little bit. And the more I lessen the fear, the further I will be able to push myself, so that maybe some day I can reach the potential that we all have.
Because letting the fear win is the most terrifying thing of all.