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Courage is not the opposite of fear

“Ok. Wait. Auntie Sherry.” My nine-year-old niece interrupted my story with one outstretched hand to serve as a stop sign. With her other hand, she flicked her long, blonde hair off her shoulder. Then she narrowed her eyes and peered into the cavernous depths of my being. “On a scale of one to ten, how scared were you?”

The question caught me off guard. My husband and I had just returned from three-months exploring Southeast Asia and we were recounting the story of the day we went caving in Vietnam—one of the most exciting days of his life and one of the most difficult days of mine.

One to ten. I hadn't thought of how to quantify my fear in such clear terms. I waved her off with a promise to return to her question later, then we continued with our story, taking turns telling the various parts from our very different perspectives.

My niece listened patiently for a moment, then butted back in, positioning her body in front of me so she couldn't be dismissed. “Scale of one to ten, Auntie Sherry. How scared were you?”

She needed to know. Suddenly I realized the importance of her question. She’s just starting out on this journey of life and needs real life examples of courage. It wasn't enough for me to say the caving adventure was hard for me and I was scared at times. She needed specifics. I can respect that.

But I still didn't know how to assign a number. I paused my story to explain to her exactly what about the experience caused me such stress and anxiety.

I’m not afraid of heights. On the contrary, I find them somewhat exhilarating, so long as I am on firm footing, a safe distance from the edge.

I don't struggle with claustrophobia, so the narrow, enclosed, chimney-like formations in the cave were not particularly distressing.

I explained to my niece that I am prone to a weird vertigo-type thing. If there is a lot of visible distance beneath my feet, like when standing on a metal grate or climbing a ladder, I lose all sense of depth-perception and balance. My brain can't seem to figure out where I am, how to take steps, and how to keep from tipping over. If there is also a very high ceiling above me, the sensation is even more pronounced. I can't look up or I will just fall backwards—or at least it feels like I will fall.

So, an activity like caving, which involves lots of traversing narrow ledges and climbing ladders, often in places with high, cathedral-like rock ceilings overhead and steep drop-offs below, makes me feel very off-kilter, like I will surely fall if I so much as turn my head. I can't look up. I can't look down. And often it’s pitch black, other than the headlamps. I can't necessarily see the distance above or below me, but I can hear the sound echoing high and low, so my brain still fritzes out.

On this particular caving adventure, I could hear other people oohing and aahing over the scenery around us, the amazing stalactites and stalagmites, the wild colors streaking through the rocks from ribbons of mineral deposits, the occasional tidy rows of bats perched on a ledge.

“Oh! Look at that! Point your light up there!” I would hear someone say, then the responses. “Wow! So cool!” and “That’s amazing!”

I never looked. Every time I started to look up, even just a little bit, the sensation would return. In my distorted reality, the simple motion of looking up could easily send me catapulting backward, head over heels into the abyss. Call me crazy, but that’s just not my idea of a good time. I’m afraid of the debilitating sensation of having no discernable center of gravity or sense of balance.

Worse yet, when the sensations build up enough to overload my circuits, I freeze. I can't make my feet move. And if I’m in a group of people, my freezing-up makes a scene, draws unwanted attention, and slows everyone else down—causing me even more stress. I’m afraid of freezing up and feeling paralyzed in a group setting.

“So what did you do about it?” My niece squinted at me, truly curious.

“I just looked straight ahead—at the rungs of the ladder I was climbing, or at the back of the person ahead of me, or at my hands on the rocks we were climbing. And I tried to keep going—never stopping long enough to freeze up, and never looking up or down. I had to continually tell myself to just keep going.”

She nodded, taking it all in. I could almost see her brain processing my story and tucking it into the proper file folder where it could be retrieved later as needed.

I just looked straight ahead and kept going, even though I felt terribly afraid. This is pretty much the definition of courage, as I now understand it.

Throughout most of my life, I have equated fear with weakness. Strong and courageous have been presented as the opposite of afraid. As a result, I have sought to power through, and somehow deny myself any feelings of fear. In some categories, at some times in my life, I have been successful.

When I was young, I used to participate regularly in the neighborhood bike-jumping competitions. The boys on their BMX bikes, and me on my purple Schwinn Slick Chick with the ape hanger handlebars and banana seat, would take turns riding to the top of our dirt road’s hill, then careening down to hit the ramp—a plank leaned up against a stack of red bricks—at top speed, KA-THWAAK, launching ourselves for distance and hoping we would land in one piece.

I climbed trees that were ridiculously big, cozying myself into the branches for a peaceful afternoon of reading.

Much to my parents’ dismay, I wasn't even terribly afraid of getting punished when I broke the rules. Scale of one to ten? Maybe a two, at most. I just wasn't very afraid of anything, it seemed.

As I grew older, though, I somehow transformed into a certifiable chicken-butt—and not just related to watching my own kids jump their bikes or climb trees. I learned to fear other things, bigger and heavier things, as I grew older. Perhaps it’s a natural progression. The more we have experienced of pain and heartache, the more we recognize the warning signs and take preventative measures to protect ourselves.

As I’ve aged, I have begun to realize that being fearless is not a goal I can—or even want to—achieve. But being courageous IS. And they are very different things.

My recent friend Sarah, a fellow nomad who Andy and I met on the island of Borneo back in December, summed it up well in a Facebook exchange, just yesterday.

“I wish I had your courage,” her friend Angela had written, referring to Sarah’s status as a solo-female traveler.

Sarah replied, “Courage is only doing stuff that scares you.” Then she wisely added, “Traveling doesn't scare me.”

For Sarah, solo travel is not a courageous thing, because it is not something that frightens her. Her friend Angela, on the other hand, finds the prospect scary, so for her to do it would be an act of courage.

For my husband Andy, climbing up and down tall, rickety ladders or across open metal grates is not courageous. For me, it most definitely is.

Whether we are talking about clothing or courage, one-size-fits-all is simply not true. One size does not fit all. Courage is not even one-size-fits-most. Different people are afraid of different things, and at different levels along my niece’s scale of one to ten.

The way I see it, fear is nearly unavoidable—at least for adults. We know too much. But courage—acting despite our fears, carrying on in the midst of our fears, looking straight ahead and moving forward even when our fears threaten to paralyze us—is a choice. And courage seems to function very much like a muscle; the more we exercise it, the stronger it gets.

What are your fears, friend? Are they physical? Relational? Vocational? Spiritual? On a scale of one to ten, how scared are you? (You don't have to answer that—I couldn't.) Can you think of a way, however small, that you can force yourself to face a fear and move forward with courage?

It doesn't matter if your legs are shaking when you take the step. I encourage you to try anyway.


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