On the Value of Feeling the Fear … and Not Doing It Anyway
It was a warm evening, my arms staying bare until well past eight
p.m. We were going to have a makeshift barbecue in the cove; salmon fillets,
halloumi, warmed pitta bread. But first, the bioluminescence. That was what
we’d all come here for, my boyfriend and his friend and his friend’s friends. It
was meant to be an incredible sight. Fireflies under the black sea. Rarely seen
and only on certain nights. Everybody else began pulling off their tops. One
woman made polite conversation as if trying to horse-whisper me, the discomfort
of my refusal to go in the water evident as faces turned away. They asked again,
You sure? I’m happy here, I said. You
sure? my boyfriend tried once more as his childhood friend shouted to him
from the sea. His shoulder was half-turning. I nodded. Listened as yelps and
shouts started up. Splashes and half-snatched sentences of exclamation. An amazing sight … can’t believe it … never seen
anything like it. I felt my belly sink into the sand beneath me, pulled
down by the shame at my failure to join them. I wondered what they must think
of me – the new girlfriend, coward enough to miss a once in a lifetime moment. I
did eventually roll up my jeans to my knees and walk into the shallows. I did
see the fireflies under the sea for myself.
They sparked and dashed, joining in fleeting wild anglesas I kicked through the water. But I
didn’t swim and when we were all settled back around the fire, it seemed as if the
shame clung wetly to me as we all dried off.
I’ve thought a lot about that evening since. At first, I
thought about it as a stick with which to beat myself. That cruel self-talk at
which many of us excel. Pathetic. Coward. Shit girlfriend. You know the drill.
But over time, I came to see it as something else entirely: that what was wrong
was not that fear had prevented me from night-swimming that August evening, but
that I thought the fear was a problem, instead of an invitation.
Feel the Fear and Do It
Anyway, the title of
the 1987 bestselling self-help book, has become a well-known phrase and part of
our common language. For its twenty-fifth anniversary, articles continued to
cheerlead it as life-changing. It had encouraged people to quit jobs they
hated, leave partners, ask for a pay rise. Susan Jeffers, the author, says that
when we are frightened, we are “living in the lower self”. Instead we need to
train ourselves to move to the “higher self” that can go beyond fear. It is an
ethos rooted in Enlightenment ideals of progress: that we can move from
something lowly to a more rational, less pained species. Some causes of fear
can, of course, be outrun by science: some cancers now have cures, HIV is not a
death sentence, and so on. But fear itself, not its causes, is not something we
can outrun. In a way, Jeffers recognised this – she doesn’t say don’t feel the fear; she says feel it
and do the thing causing it anyway.
Push through it. Fight it. Be a fear warrior. This is the cultural message
which causes shame when we fail to carpe diem our way through life. It is why I
was so certain I was pathetic on that Falmouth beach, floored by fear and stuck
to rock and sand. There was only the opportunity to see stars under the sea –
what the hell was wrong with me? Well, there was something wrong with me – or
with my context, more accurately.
It was eleven months since my mum’s cancer diagnosis.
Lymphoma. Particularly aggressive. Like the flighty plankton under the sea, I
had seen her body light up on a scan, illuminated spots all over her abdomen
and neck. Those eleven months had been brutal. The visceral reality of spending
so much time withher on hospital
wards full of pained and dying people; it had pervaded everything in me. I appeared
identical to twelve months before but everything inside me felt unstuck and
quaking. The weirdest things began triggering a fear response in me. A trip to
an overcrowded market on a weekend gave me an extreme panic attack, floor
swimming up to meet me, breathing turning to a pant. I couldn’t bring myself to
attempt a handstand in yoga class because I had become inexplicably terrified
of turning upside down. In Falmouth, all I could imagine happening in the water
was some sort of injury. I wasn’t like the other people there that night. I
couldn’t get in. I couldn’t get in and be like them because I was unlike them. My name was written
on a form next to three of the best-worst words in the world: next of kin. No one
would be vitally let down if the others slipped on a rock a few feet out and
were incapacitated by a sprain or crack. No one would be alone in doctors’
rooms if they stood on a shard of shell and stitches were needed. No one would
miss their stroking palms which distracted from the pain if they caught a cold
from the chill water and weren’t allowed to visit for fear of passing on germs.
I wasn’t like them. I was experiencing anticipatory fear, something humans are
unique amongst animals for being able to do. We can imagine terror. A dubious
human superpower. These phantoms can indeed trap us unnecessarily – this is
what Jeffers teaches – but what if they are also, at times, teaching us
something necessary? Before my mother’s illness, I would have got straight into
that night sea, probably with a momentary mental squirm at the unseen organisms
which might nibble at my limbs in the water, but I would have got in all the
same. But things had changed: options for putting myself at risk, however slim,
did not exist. Instead of recognising the cause of my fear – the invitation to
acknowledge my changed circumstances and the difficulty of them – I felt robbed
of myself and ashamed in front of apparently more courageous people.
In one of the anniversary articles celebrating Jeffers’ book,
“Now every time I have to call someone I don’t know, go to a party alone
or argue my point in a meeting, I simply repeat the phrase in my head. I remind
myself that it’s good to be scared because it means I’m living life rather than
just hiding in my comfort zone.”
She fails to see two things. First, that a comfort zone is a
luxury. It is a characteristic of a privileged life situation. There is no
comfort zone when you are facing grief or if you are living in a context of
instability, as many people around the world are today. How privileged to
disdain a state of comfort? And second, that fear may sometimes be a trap, but
it may instead be an invitation to remain in your comfort zone for good reason. In times of distress,
the option – if it is there – to stay in a position of relative comfort versus
venture out into yet more uncertain territory is immensely logical and,
perhaps, even wise.
The perfect example of this second point comes from an
unlikely place. Alex Honnold is a world-class free solo climber. In 2017, he made the first ever
ascent of the 3000-foot-high El Capitan rock formation in Yosemite National
Park, California. The documentary, Free
Solo, follows him in the months leading up to this feat, exploring the kind
of character which would pursue such a dangerous challenge.He is, surely, either someone who feels the fear and does it
anyway or someone who doesn’t even feel it at all. In fact, he has an MRI scan during
the documentary which concludes that his amygdala – the part of the brain responsible
for fear response – doesn’t react to fear-inducing stimulus in the way most of
ours would. Many commentators have taken this to be a crucial piece of the
Honnold puzzle: he can do it because he doesn’t feel the fear the rest of us
would. Perhaps this is true, but I think they’re missing something far more
interesting. To me, the most important moment in the film is actually what
happens fifty-eight minutes in.
He is off to climb “El Cap”, ropeless, certain death waiting
if the slightest thing goes wrong. It is before dawn when he parks up. Deer scatter
in front of his headtorch as he walks towards the foot of the enormous rock. “It’s
always about excellence and perfection,” he says on the voiceover. We watch him
begin the ascent. The white light from his headtorch is all we can see of him,
moving up the rock in the pitch black – another firefly. Then, heavy breathing
and next, his voice, frustrated, “This sucks. I don’t want to be here. I’m over
He stops the climb.
Is he weak?
He seems to think so in the immediate aftermath. His head
hangs with weighty shame. This reaction, and the audience’s sense of being let
down by someone they need to view as a hero, is precisely because of the
Jeffers indoctrination. He is, instead, not weak but wise. Honnold has many years
of free soloing under his belt. He is finely attuned to instinct and safety.
His comfort zone may not be the same as the rest of us, but he respects its
importance nonetheless. For him, choosing to ignore instinct is a matter of dying.
If he ignores the fear rising, it may mean ignoring that something isn’t right
in the conditions for the climb and he will literally
die. For most of us, most of the time, choosing whether to accept fear and
to turn away from things which scare us is not a choice of life and death. It
is a choice of life and life, but possibly one in which we’ve pushed too far
too soon, or we’ve burnt the candle at both ends and burnt out, or we’ve simply
failed to listen to our minds that, for whatever reason, need to stay in the warm
confines of comfort for now.
I have certainly been a strong subscriber to the Jeffers
approach. One of my favourite poems, “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac”, by Mary
Oliver, written by her while suffering from cancer herself, is a favourite
largely because of these lines:
You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not… Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.
It is an admonishment not to waste time. And there is merit
in this meaning. Watching somebody dwindle while cancer wreaks havoc on their
body leaves me with no false illusions about that. Life is, indeed, too short.
But life is also long, in its own way and there is also a role for nourishing
ourselves quietly within it. There are times when listening to our fears can
help us. They are information. They are trying to signal something to us about
what is happening. It may be a real threat outside us or an anticipatory
phantom inside us but, regardless, it demands attention be paid. The brain is
not a static thing like a rock; it is a living organism and it changes over
time. If it needs a brief, kind respite in your comfort zone while it adjusts
to new circumstances or learns to understand a new context, let it have it.
The end of that relationship which took me to the night beach
in Falmouth acted as a clarion call for change. I had been living in a state of
vigilant terror for months. It finally became clear to me that I had to listen to
fear’s invitation. It asked me to acknowledge my need for comfort and quiet amid
grief and instability. Acting upon it was not easy: it meant saying no to
things and, crucially, respecting myself when I said no as much as I would if
I’d said yes. At first, it meant feeling like I was failing some social
standard but, slowly, I came to see that I was simply living courageously in a
different way: I was feeling the fear and holding it. A few months later, I
haven’t had a single panic attack. I find I feel only excitement at the notion
of trying to turn upside down and feel my arms brace and hold me. I live in
London so night-swimming hasn’t offered itself yet, but I feel confident that
if a black sea full of unlikely stars was in front of me right now, I would
jump in and splash like a child. There is still a very real danger outside me –
my mother is still very ill. But I have made friends with the fear inside me,
inviting her in to hear what she needs to teach me. Working with her in this
way turns out to be exactly what was needed, creating the inner stores to cope
with the unknown things which will come.