Saturday, June 3, 2017

On Fear (Archive, 2009, 2011)

Slightly edited excerpt from "That Uppity Ego"
August 16, 2009


Since Michigan, this is a topic I seem to be contemplating and discussing quite frequently. Fear is a never-ending fight and if we cower too often it can cripple and make us a prisoner of our own mind.

I find it hilarious when people tell I'm "courageous." Someone famous wrote, “None but a coward dares to boast that he has never known fear.” I have known more than most! It's had a history of paralyzing me. I made a mistake in not publishing the back-story from 2004-2008, before Running with the Wind. I will correct that eventually, but it literally took me those 4-years to hit the road primarily due to fear. The “what ifs” consumed me. I was never prepared enough, never had the right equipment, or the destination was not right because too much “might happen.” Much of that was due to a lack of confidence, a major source of fear. In the weeks leading up to my departure in May 2008 I repeatedly shredded myself in my journal about the fact that I KNEW I was an obvious coward with nothing but big talk and bigger ideas, and I was sick of feeling powerless to do anything about it. This is from April 20, 2008, exactly one month before I began this little adventure:

“Same old story. I thrive when it’s concept and planning but when it comes time to execute [and] put my ass on the line I hesitate, procrastinate, and try to avoid the hard fought experience I need to answer questions, identify weaknesses and conquer my pathetic fears. Fear doesn’t reside in the heart of the adversary or [in the] prospect of failure; it resides in the heart of the coward… In many ways, I am indeed a coward. How else can I identify or define it? That’s the hard truth, but I hold out hope that I’ll still be able to change that…. I’m obviously afraid to find and redefine these old boundaries and [create] new ones…. I can ‘pontificate’ to the end of the world, but it’s... simple. I’m a coward. I’m only dipping my little toe into the ocean of ideas I’ve created. It’s as though I’ve built a bridge and am afraid to cross it on my own., waiting for someone else to try it out because I’m not sure I trust my own craftsmanship… While it helps to explain the “whys” and the details of these fears, let’s not lose sight of what it really is. Call it by its real name: Cowardice… From here on, I won’t be delicate about that, and need to be conscious of attacking these things in whatever way I can... This phase is about attacking fears. Cowardice. I don’t like using that term: Coward. Yet I believe it’s an important admission… Admitting to fear, something common to all of us, is somehow gentle, and open to rationalization and easy acceptance of failings. Cowardice, however, is a character flaw. Unforgivable for a man who’s critical of the status quo and systemic life.”

Fear is a motherfucker because it is a terrifying loud ghost. It’s usually not based on anything tangible in the moment; danger in the moment is confronted with action and instinct. Fear is either rooted in the future (what if) or on the past (what was). I decided to post this self-loathing little entry as an example because, with the benefit of hindsight and experience, I see how silly it was. I was in the business of creating my own worst case scenarios. “What if” was the phrase most commonly running through my mind. Luckily, I was able to remember the effects of this toxic thinking after I left and that helped combat the nagging fears that remained present, but steadily faded as time went on. The “Vern Moment” in Wyoming was a watershed because, once through it, I was finally able to laugh at these previously terrifying fears.

“The ability to feel fear and keep moving forward distinguishes the living from the merely breathing.”

That's one of my favorite quotes. You will never completely eliminate fear, but you have a choice of how to handle it. Be crippled by irrational fears and be the equivalent of a brain in the vat or confront them and attack life. In my experience, the more you confront them the more confidence you gain with the repeated realization that they were usually are based on… nothing. A good starting point: Ask yourself, “What would I do if I were not afraid?”

Beware. An important distinction is the difference between irrational fear and hubris. If you put yourself in ridiculously dangerous situations for which you are ill-prepared you deserve your fate. Find your boundaries and know your limitations. Chris McCandless of Into the Wild fame has attained cult status amongst many misguided Granola Youth because they believe he died “nobly” living his ideals. Horseshit. He starved to death. Stupidly. The kid thought that he could commune with nature despite having inadequate skills and experience to survive a summer in Alaska. At some point his hitchhiker's confidence became backwoods hubris.

There was a similar story just this past month in Colorado. He set off into the back-country, eventually mailed much of his gear home, then quit receiving supplies. They found his body near Lake City in July after spending the winter buried beneath 20’ of snow. The kicker: he was found next to a cabin that may have saved his life but was unable to get inside because he was ill-equipped. Like McCandless, this person had noble ideals but was either arrogant, or "inadequately common sensed." This hiker was by all accounts highly intelligent, had well developed ideas and kept a meticulous journal. However, he failed to protect it so not only was HE lost, so was his essence. In the end, what did he die for? To become an anecdote?

Healthy fear is good; the kind that occasionally protects you from yourself and prevents you from stumbling into legitimately dangerous situations. A little courage coupled with a cup of common sense and a dash of realistic humility will take one a long way.

"Avatars & Cheese"
January, 27 2011

Over the last two-years, there were numerous times I’ve caught myself making decisions so that the "story" would be better. The blog had become a bit of a hybrid creative-outlet/ego-feeder; something I too closely identified with. I liked the idea that I was doing something that others either couldn't do or were afraid to, and naturally that appealed to me! Telling the story has, at times, shadowed why I'm doing it. Nothing personal, but what I'm doing should have nothing to do with entertaining you!

Now, there is something potentially noble about allowing people to live vicariously through you. Maybe as a “what if” example; trying to share a vision of how to live a principle or trigger thoughts of how things could be “if only ‘X’ were different.” “X” can be anything you choose: marriage, kids, money, fear, or laziness. You’ll ALWAYS find an ‘X’ if you want to, and some folks count on that. "If only..." is often the crutch of the career victim.

Rather than taking actual steps ourselves, it’s safer to adopt avatars; to watch others do what we wish we could--while we, personally, risk nothing. How nice for the cowardly would-be adventurer to just ride along! Then, when that avatar inevitably stumbles, the couch-creature can then sing their own verses of disengaged brilliance! 

See how wise THEY were wise to remain safely rooted to the couch!

Or, perhaps when the avatar fails to meet their ever-increasing entertainment standards, the anonymous couch-creature can pretend he’s watching a reality show and, wallowing in the aforementioned cognitive dissonance, tell himself (with the benefit of hindsight) how HE surely would have done it differently--and much better! Chris tells of actually receiving hate-mail when he interrupted his cross-country walk! Hate-mail from a couch-creature who had attached their own personal meaning to his achievement!

I’ve encountered this vicarious mentality occasionally over the last 2 1/2 years, and even momentarily and disastrously fell into its trap last spring with Ray. In fact, I've adopted several avatars as hopeful mentors and standard bearers over the years. Those I've looked up to were either co-opted or became a huge disappointment under the weight of unfair expectations. Once people try move from idealism to implementation, standards and ideals often become secondary to convenience, convention, and self-preservation. People become captives of institution, slaves to doctrine, or simple mental masturbators.

I've traditionally elevated to a pedestal, sometimes unwittingly, those who show the courage to act on principle and accept the consequences rather than sit, speculate, wonder, then ask themselves a year later why life sucks and won't change. I've elevated those who question convention. I admire those that ask 'why?' and wont take "I said so' for a answer. However, it's been my experience that when I look up to someone either as an example or standard bearer, they, predictably, fail miserably in these roles because WE are the only ones who can legitimately set our own standards. We only do that effectively by living life in person.

Numerous people have told me how they would like to "do something like this” but, for numerous reasons, just can’t. At first, I was genuinely flattered and surprised at how some identified with what I was doing. Considering how long it took me to finally engage, I'd actually considered myself a coward!


Only with the benefit of hindsight, I slowly realized that what I experienced in the years leading up to my hitting the road for the first time was something shared by everyone: fear.

I, myself, have had a habit of seeking out avatars to show myself that my ideas and visions were possible. Ironically, that’s how Chris and I originally met in 2004. I was living in Florida and he was in Denver at the time. In August of that year, I had rekindled the notion that the notion of life we’d been sold was maybe horseshit, and had a harebrained, cloudy, vision of setting out down the road with a backpack! I had yet to hear of McCandless or anyone else who had done it and, intimidated by the prospect, needed to see that it could be done, and that I wasn’t crazy! I did a web search about others who had done it, and found his website.

It’s no insignificant fact that it took 4-years for that vision to manifest. I tiptoed around the fringes, but never overcame the fears of “what if.” It was a long process, and made longer by my own laziness and refusal to accept full responsibility for who I was, where I was, and the future tenses of both. Chris initially served as a bit of an unwilling role model and inadvertent mentor; a guide as to the general direction I needed to take myself.

I intermittently battled fear (usually losing badly) from the day we moved from Taos to Denver early in ’05 to the day I stepped out in May ’08. It’s astounding for me to think back 5-years and recall the molehills I mistook for mountains! All along the way, fear was a constant companion and like everyone risking something, it remains my most tenacious sparring partner. The only thing separating myself was that I somehow stumbled from pretending fear shouldn’t be there--

  • to recognition, acceptance, and meek confrontation
  • to beating myself up, assuming its continued existence meant failure
  • to realizing it never “goes away”
  • then consciously working to act despite it.

The simple fact is that, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, we’re all much more alike than we care to admit. Fear isn’t something ultimately “conquered.” Rather than a dragon to be slain, it’s closer to a game of Whack-a-Mole. With a ton of hard work and perseverance it can be befriended and controlled, but like the ego it never dies. Anyone who claims otherwise is a fucking liar. Tell ‘em I said so! When you reinforce one wall, fear simply sniffs out another one of our weakness and moves on.

With the right attitude, like many other things we prefer to avoid, fear can be our greatest self-investigative tool. For me, an enormous key was something I read shortly before leaving in ’08. It was a question asked in a cute little book called Who Moved My Cheese: “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?” That brilliantly simple little question shifts focus from "what if" to what we’re missing out on; from the unlikely negatives to the potential positives. Pursuing something you want is usually more effective (and far more enjoyable) than fleeing from the imaginary somethings you "think" are behind you the whole time!