Fearing fear



Aren't you afraid?

This is one of the most frequent questions that I have been asked over the years and after countless experiences of all kinds, fear is one of the great topics on which I continue to reflect daily.

The quick answer is this: of course I'm afraid! But to develop my response and illustrate my attitude towards it I would like to start with three brief stories.

  ONE - "While I spend my days as a student in university, I can't stop day-dreaming about where I will travel during the three summer months: will it be South America, will it be Asia, will it be Europe? I know little or nothing of the places I imagine. I have no idea what I would eat, how I would move, where I would sleep, I am worried about my safety. Having been born and raised in Buenos Aires, I am obsessed with thinking that I can be mugged me and if they mugged me, what would I do?  I always worry about running out of money, I worry about getting lost, I worry about not having someone to turn to, how to contact my family or get help, everything worries me and scares me"

  TWO - "It was the second month of my first bicycle trip. I was crossing Kyrgyzstan with its high mountain ranges and I was still struggling to try to learn the dozens of nuances of this new way of travelling. My management of time and my ability to foresee how far I could go in a day were still non-existent and that was how one night on the way to Bishkek, away from any town, I found myself camping on the edge of a cemetery.
While I was pitching my tent at the end of the day before it got dark, and cooking my dinner late at night, the cemetery fact was irrelevant to me, because after all, no matter how many Hollywood horror movies I had seen as a teen, nobody comes back from death. That's why I dined at ease and with my belly full and my body tired I quickly gave in to a night of deep sleep.

Until at some point during the night, some heavy blows shook my tent violently. I woke up exalted from my deep sleep and my heart racing. There was no wind or rain, the silence was absolute and this is not a region of wild animals. Immediately I thought that they might be trying to steal from me, but I did not hear footsteps making the leaves rustle on the floor, nor whispers. Suddenly, a new series of blows shook my tent and I clenched my teeth hard. My heart was now in my throat and I began to imagine that every movie fantasy could become reality. The minutes passed between blows and I did not know what to do.

Armed with courage I turned on my dim flashlight and decided to cautiously open the door of the tent. I unzipped the minimum necessary, pulled out my head and saw nothing but absolute darkness. I pointed to one side and the other and saw nothing. Everything remained calm. While I tried to recover my tranquillity, I went back to bed wishing for the best.

The next morning, I opened my tent also cautiously. It was a splendid day. I looked around and seeing that everything was quiet I decided to come out with confidence reaffirmed by the light of day. As I stood outside, I was instantly embarrassed by my discovery, when I realised that those blows had not been the living dead but that I had camped under an apple tree.
There, I stood for several minutes laughing at my own fear while looking at the apples on the ground "-

   THREE - "It was almost the end of the day by the time I reached the base of the legendary Sani Pass, which separates South Africa from Lesotho. I did not have enough time left to make the last hard climb, and given the magnificent scenery of the Drakensberg Range that surrounded me, now bathed in the golden color of the descending sun, I decided to camp. Dazzled by the scenery I pitched the tent, cooked my dinner and sat down to eat contemplating the immeasurable beauty.

 However, everything would change quickly when, right before dark, a brutal storm front appeared right above the truncated tops of the mountain range, in this region where thunderstorms are famous for taking lives every year. From that moment, events began to evolve faster than I could assimilate. In the middle of the night, out in the open, and nowhere to go to take refuge, I only had to pray that the storm would not continue moving in my direction.

 It was not so. Soon after, the wind blew with unleashed fury, the torrential rain flooded the ground, the hail strafed my tent, the thunders made the earth tremble and the bolts of lightning lit up the sky turning a landscape that should be pitch black to an incandescent white. The pegs of the tent came off, it flipped over, got flooded inside, and the wind took me wrapped in it. While trying to stop it, a fleeting image of a completely electrified sky above me was recorded in my retina and right there, I understood that I was in serious danger.

Convinced that I was going to die carbonised at any moment by a lightning strike, and battling through the ordeal, I managed to get my notepad and pen and while trying to control the trembling, I wrote a note to my family and my girlfriend (of that moment). Then I threw myself to the ground and for each strike accompanied by a loud thunder, I clenched my teeth waiting for the end. My notion of time was completely lost and the minutes could well have been hours. Fortunately, the storm passed, little by little, continuing its path. At that moment, back in absolute darkness, completely soaked and freezing cold, trembling with fear, I understood that death had just passed by my side ... " (Read the full story here )

I have gone through many more experiences of fear, travelling or not, that I can possibly remember, but in this case, I will limit myself to the experiences, both prior to a trip and those that occur during them.

Let me begin by saying that I coexist with fear, no more or less than any other person. I experience it more or less frequently in different degrees, but I what I know for sure is that he is always there with me. So, the question is not whether I am afraid or not doing what I do, but what is it that I do with that fear that always accompanies me.

I understand that for some it is more difficult than for others to assimilate fear as something that just naturally occurs at any point in time, in a way that it is not a cause for paralysis. But fear, in essence, is an innate sensation present in all human beings (and animals) and arises, both rationally and irrationally, any time we perceive a danger or a threat, be it real or imaginary. Therefore, to accept it as intrinsic to oneself is essential.

Now, given that fear always coexists with oneself, therefore it is critical to understand that not everything that causes fear necessarily represents a tangible danger. Fear can be, without a doubt, the product of reason in action activating the instinct of survival, but it can also be the irrational result of an anxious and speculative mind.

My first story perfectly reflects this last type of fear. What I want to emphasize about it is that ultimately, these are fears invented by the discursive mind, the product of unlimited speculation. What is paradoxical is that these pessimistic fantasies are those that constitute one of the main forms of paralysis and not a real danger.

For this type of fear there is only one solution: stop thinking and act! Many times it is the very distance that separates us from a certain situation we imagine, what generates enough anxiety for us to fear it. However, it is enough to put the plans in motion and put yourself in the situation, so that one realises that by becoming something real, all those previous fears disappear immediately. That proximity makes us act in the present moment and what we discover is the tranquillity that everything is actually manageable, whether we are at home or in a completely foreign place. The mind does not have time to be speculating about what may happen. One responds to the needs of the present moment and things are easier than one imagined.

The second story is the example of ambiguous cases, those that occur frequently already within a trip. It is the case in which, in a certain situation, there may be several indications that we are potentially in the presence of something that threatens us. The tricky part of these situations is that if fear seizes you, it makes us lose the ability to discern between what represents a real danger and a false danger product of everything we imagine. My main reaction in the cemetery was that of immediate fear, however, on a more thorough look, I was able to recover the necessary objectivity that allowed me to determine, based on the analysis of the circumstances, that whatever was happening out there, could not be something dangerous.

Finally, the third story is a case of concrete danger. Here it is not the imagination but the reality, and the truth is that dangers always exist and will exist as long as we live and sometimes there's little or nothing one can do to prevent them. Both the case of this story, and the handful of other cases where I was really in serious danger, there are several lessons I have learned. But the most important lesson is rooted in something that in fact I have well rooted inside of me.

When I was little and my dad taught me how to swim, he would always tell me that if I was ever in danger at sea, the first thing to do was to calm down, then conserve my energies and only use them at the time of swimming with each favourable current. That's how I would slowly make my way back to shore soon. Over time I corroborated that in situations of danger, whether at sea or in any other circumstance, calming down in a moment of despair can mean the difference between having chances to continue living or die.

Therefore, perhaps without premeditation, but as an instinctive reaction, my first reaction to danger is to calm down. This allows me to think more clearly, assess situations better and act more intelligently at a time of risk. It is evident that it is not always easy to achieve it. There are situations, like that of the third story, in which I certainly have not succeeded. It is also true that even when keeping calm, things can still go wrong, but I think that by responding with greater serenity we increase our chances of things going well.

As you can see, either through fears invented by mental speculation or concrete fears when we are exposed to real danger, fears are always with us. They are definitely always with me, for sure. So by accepting this premise, trying to go against them is nothing but plain absurd.

In my experience, I find again and again that fear is a means of protection, and above all, a great regulator of common sense. I do not let fear inhibit me but, knowing that it is there, it is like a companion that helps me sharpen my senses. Fear helps me to better foresee what I do, to plan more intelligently and to reconnect with the caution that I so easily lose in times when I feel omnipotent and indestructible. It reminds me that I am very vulnerable and therefore I must take precautions to continue doing what I like to do.

I coexist with fear daily, but I do not fear, fear. I do not let it paralyze me, nor let it dominate my decisions. It is me who should be in charge of my fears and not them commanding me. Obviously, in some circumstances of life more than in others, whether travelling or in everyday life, this is more or less difficult to achieve. Still, working with fear is something that I take seriously as a healthy exercise to live better by including it rather than futilely waiting for it to disappear.

Finally, if there is something I would like to leave you with to think about, it is that as long as we live, we will always be exposed to danger. That is regardless of how great the illusion that we have created for ourselves is that we are safe, because, as Helen Keller very well said: "Security is mostly a superstition", and as long as the dangers are lurking, we will always be afraid and my response to that is not to fear fear.