Lessons and inspiration live everywhere. This weekend, my lesson about fear and courage was waiting for me at the other end of a fallen tree on one of Mill Valley’s most beautiful trails.
Across a creek, stretches a fallen redwood, perfectly placed across both ends of a low creek bed, large and wide enough to walk across like a foot bridge. Water, gently runs underneath it. It’s just high enough off the ground, over the creek to get your attention. Not high enough to be dangerous, but enough to let vertigo kick in. I’m guessing it’s maybe eight feet off the ground at its’ highest point, but for someone who's afraid of heights (me!), that's high enough.
I’ve always been afraid of heights, but I wanted to conquer it, so last year, at the end of a family hike, I decided to walk across the log. Without thinking, I set out across the log confidently at the beginning, but then just in the middle, I looked down, and came to a sudden halt. My body froze with fear. What started as a fun, post-hike dare with myself, turned into a quivering, squatting, log-clutching woman, stuck in the middle, unable to move. My husband had to come get me. I couldn’t move, couldn’t talk, couldn’t turn around. I was totally stuck. My heart was pounding, my mouth totally dry, every muscle clenched. It was embarrassing. Fear had grabbed me, stopped me in my tracks, and told me that there was no way in hell I was crossing that log. I couldn’t believe it…long after my husband helped me down (back the same way that I started), I was shaken by the physiological response that fear had on me. That was the day we nicknamed that spot the “heart-stopping log”.
Fast-forward to last weekend, when my kids and I went to the same trail. I reminded my daughter about the heart-stopping log. She took one look at it, jumped up on one end, and ran across it, back and forth. And then, just to prove her point, she did it again. And again. She put her arms out, and walked, even ran a little. She taunted us a bit (she is a pre-teen, after all). She mentioned that maybe she got her adventurous spirit from her Dad. I thought I’d been pretty brave lately with opening The Hivery, but there at the heart-stopping log in the eyes of a twelve year old, I was held captive by my own fear.
My son tried to cross it, and at first he had a similar response to me. Almost to the middle, he turned back, saying, “I can’t...I’m too scared.”. We both wanted to do it…so, again, and again, we tried, inching our way to the middle, and then turning around, too afraid to cross to the other side. Finally, my son did it. Slowly, and with caution, he made it, celebrating on the other side of the creek bed, with a fist pump, and a “Yes!”.
As happy as I was for him, I was even more determined to do it myself. I tried again…fine at first, and then as I crept to the middle, that same tension and fear kicking in. But this time, instead of crouching and turning around, I looked ahead to the point on the other side, and spontaneously, I smiled at my son on the other side. And with that smile, the tension in my shoulders softened, my feet felt secure, my focus held steady away from the ground, and I walked…sideways, a little shuffly, and without the grace of my years of ballet training, but I made it. I crossed the heart-stopping log.
It wasn’t balance, or nerve, or practice, or determination that got me across that log. It was the smile…the softening, the acceptance, the joy, and the love of a little boy waiting for me on the other side. The log was the same, my feet were the same, but the fear was in a different place. It was me, just being myself...open, vulnerable, and accepting of love and support, that got me across the log.
We all want courage, and we all have it within us. But, man does it put us up against ourselves. The most fundamental thing that we are truly afraid of is the risk of actually being who we really are. It is a subconscious notion that when we hide from being our true selves, that we won’t be criticized for our fundamental essence. So, we hide at one end of the log, or stop part-way, without fully expressing, fully crossing, holding back one last piece of our vulnerability so that we aren't too exposed.
When Fear Gets Louder
Since starting The Hivery, I’ve never, ever felt like I was on a more meaningful path or one that was more “me”….I think I was born to do this. The surprise for me wasn’t my instinctive feeling that this was what I was meant to do. The surprise for me was in doing what I was meant to do, I still experience fear…and in some ways I experience it FAR more intensely than ever before. I think I fantasized that when I was truly on my path and doing meaningful work, that fear would subside. The lesson is that it gets louder…The closer you are to being your real self, the fear that you can feel is deeper…not that it’s insurmountable or should stop you, but our gal fear is there, and she’s feisty. What we learn is to recognize the fear, even find the spot in our belly that it likes to live, name her, thank her for coming, and proceed anyway.
In Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, she writes a letter to fear, as she and creativity set out on a road trip. She writes to Fear:
FEAR AND AUTHENTICITY: A COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP
There’s a line that Judy Dench says in the Second Best Marigold Hotel where she says, “The difference between what we want and what we are most afraid of is the width of an eyelash.”….I heard that, grabbed my journal, and furiously wrote it down so that I wouldn’t forget. It’s a reassurance that when the fear kicks in, pay attention. You’re probably on to something. Take the cue...it might be what you want the most.
Three Things Fear Can't Stand
I’ve learned in the last couple years, that there are a few things that fear really can’t stand…three comic-book style super heroines that shove fear into the corner and let courage step in the ring…
Our first superhero is creativity…fear can get in there and mess around, even try to spoil the process, but fear can’t take over your creativity. Fear can dull it, fear can second-guess it, but sorry Fear, you can't have it. Creativity is ours to keep.
The second is authenticity…when you're really being you, fear wants to butt in on the dance. It's fear that whispers, "Don't tell them who you really are. Don't do the thing you've always wanted. Just stay here with me, and focus on the "shoulds" and the way things have always been. Don't leave me now...keep me close. I'm fear, and I'll be right by your side." When you're out there on the big world stage of being you, our old buddy fear can stand in the wings, and maybe she's whispering (or yelling in some cases). But she's second fiddle in this life of yours, she doesn't get center stage. You are the star of this life of yours.
And, the last thing that fear is really afraid of is connection. Fear loves loneliness. Fear loves isolation. When we're feeling alone or disconnected, fear can have a real field day, including lots of practical advice on how you're not ready to cross that log. But fear can’t stand connection...especially from compassionate, supportive humans. Sorry, Fear...go find some jerks. We are just supporting each other's unique gifts over here.
Creativity, authenticity, and connection are the essence of The Hivery. Thank you my dear community, for helping me across the heart-stopping log. Wherever your log resides, know that you have a band of women waiting for you at the other side. Just smile at us, keep your eye on the other side, and walk across.