I am not a courageous person. My older brother claims I was born afraid of everything. This may surprise some, as I have learned confidence over the years. But even today, my Fear List is long and ranges from things I am not particularly fond of to those I hold in stark terror. Darkness, bats, heights, clowns, men with black hair and mustaches (I’ve mostly grown out of that one), to name a few.
When I hike (usually with my husband) I worry about cliffs, bears, falling rocks, drowning in cold water, tripping on roots and breaking my foot. Approximately 75% of the time, I am happy that I powered through, but I am usually more comfortable on the hike back (once I’m familiar with the hazards). In the past week, I walked a mile-long cave in pitch black darkness. One that required lanterns and was billed as habitat to several variety of bats. Then I canoed six miles down a river, about a third of the way going in circles and zig-zagging from shore to shore. And the piece de resistance – I rode a tandem bike with my husband (previously, our first, last, and only tandem bike experience, about 25 years ago, did not, shall we say, go so well). And it was all awesome.
It was awesome mainly because I was with good friends, first on a girls weekend in Oregon and then with my husband, who joined me, and another couple. We are at that sweet spot where we are okay with our limits. And our choices. When someone floated the idea of touring a volcanic lava tube cave, I was perfectly free to ask to be dropped off at Starbucks. Or, as I actually did, I could confess to my friends that I would go in the cave but would likely be slightly nauseous the whole time.
Facing fears is part of growing up. And, even in this later chapter of life, I still have growing up to do. Being a naturally fearful person, I have had to stare fear down all my life, and it sometimes leads to inertia or even failure. But as Eleanor Roosevelt once said “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.”
My recent adventures illustrate some important principles on approaching fear and anxiety…and the power of supportive friendships in the journey:
First, it was important to recognize and acknowledge the fear. When I heard the words “cave” “dark” and “bats” all in one conversation, I recognized the familiar pit in my stomach. I acknowledged the fear by being honest with myself that I was scared. I was also honest with my friends, who were then able to care for me. There were four of us in the cave with two lanterns, and my “lantern buddy” Kathy graciously let me hold the lantern in a death grip and walked in front of me.
Second, I embraced the fear. The entire time I was in the cave, I felt uncomfortable. When I was in the canoe, with my friend Monica, we were slightly out of control until we got the physics of rowing under our belts. At one point on the river, we were floating backward and heading for a large tree jutting over the river, and the beginnings of terror were forming in my gut. On the tandem bike, I was riding in back, unable to see where I was going, brake or steer. I was doing the best I could but occasionally my husband would call out “Are you pedaling?!” which indicated I was probably intermittently freezing up or spacing out. But I have learned over the years to distinguish “good” anxiety, which often accompanies growth, from “bad” anxiety, which can be a sign of danger. As long as I am able to tolerate the good anxiety, I am open to experiences and growth that I might otherwise miss if I gave in to fear.
Third, it helped immensely that I could lean on trustworthy people. Good friends are the embodiment of God’s love: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified….God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 3:16, NIV) I had friends around me that I felt comfortable confiding in, who were not judgmental and who were encouraging and supportive. In the cave, Kathy occasionally asked “How are you doing?” (To which a little girl, coming the other way, responded, in tears “Not so well” which made me feel brave in comparison). On the river, Monica laughed good-naturedly as we spun in circles, saying “Don’t worry, we’ll get the hang of it!” As for the ride on our tandem bikes, my friend Kathy (also my cave lantern mate) encouraged me to give it another try and she and her husband accompanied us and cheered us on.
Finally, celebrate the victories. I have not conquered my fear of caves or the dark or bats or tight places or drowning or falling off a bike. But, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, I gained a measure of strength, courage and confidence with the experience. And in the midst, I felt a profound sense of gratitude and joy. I occasionally stopped in the cave to shine the lantern on the walls, marveling at the structure and grandeur. Our day on the river was beautiful – spectacular weather, breathtaking scenery, and a variety of wildlife. And before this week, I assumed that riding a tandem bike with my husband was not a good idea, when in fact, it was a great idea. When we completed our ride, we did a victory lap for the sole purpose of taking photos. And to celebrate our day of tandem-tandem riding, our foursome went for ice cream and I treated myself to a hot fudge sundae. I am never too old to grow up!