At the weekend I was out cycling in the New Forest. It was a beautiful day and all was well with my world. As I relaxed into the ride, I realised that I often seem to be fearful and rarely (if ever) my fears are realised. On this particular day I was fearful of passing other cyclists on narrow paths. Cars driving too close to me. Going too fast down hills. Struggling to get back up the hills. Skidding on gravel and falling off. Getting stuck in a cattle grid. Being slow. So many things intruded on my enjoyment of the ride. What is funny when I think about it, is that I have these same thought patterns every time I do this cycle even though none of these events have occurred before (apart from a small incident with another cyclist that saw me almost in the canal and her in a hedge many years ago, but that’s a different story and everything was fine!).
As I reflect on my experience I realise that I spend a lot of time in a state of mild fear. Worrying is one of my hobbies. Will people like what I have said and done? Am I too selfish? Too nice? Am I a sell out or fulfilling an important role? Will I deliver on my obligations at work? Will I lose my job? Will I leave my job and find it’s a great mistake? If so, how will I cope? Will we lose our house? How are we getting on with the neighbours? Should we be doing more to be part of our community? What if I am wasting this very short life? I could go on and on — the list is exhaustive and exhausting!
When I take a moment to stop and watch my fears, I can identify with where they come from and how they become so powerful. The acronym ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’ is an interesting one. At first read I like it. But the potential for the things that I fear to happen is real. Even though the evidence suggests that It is unlikely, the fact that it could is what keeps the fear alive. As a biological mechanism to wake us up and respond to a threat it is effective, so it shouldn’t be ignored. However, in the UK there is not much to fear if we are aware and take sensible steps to look after ourselves. But the sense of pervading unease is very rea. The possibilities grow each day. Fanned by incessant media focus on bad things happening to other people in far away places. The question then becomes — how do I know what I should respond to when fear arises and what I should ignore?
What is interesting as I survey my list of day to day fears? That they are very immediate and grounded in self preservation. The bottom of Maslow’s pyramid if you like. Whereas my reality is far from that. Does our culture cultivate that low level of fear? To distract us from realising we can act to improve our own situations? To reduce the time and headspace we have. To stop us to becoming aware of the social and environmental threats that our actions create? Shh, don’t worry. Buy yourself something nice instead…
I am an environmentalist who considers herself to be pretty awake to the challenges we face. It is incredible that my fears aren’t more rooted in the existential crisis our culture finds itself in. I don’t lay awake at night worrying about climate change. Soil degradation, species extinction or air pollution. I don’t fret over the huge inequalities in wealth that I am a relative beneficiary of. The likelihood that they won’t be tolerated much longer. The possibility of posturing global leaders starting trade or weapon wars. The growing inability of modern medicine to keep on top of our microbial house mates. Even though I know that they are all exponential in their growth and impact. Which means that until the last doubling everything is fine. You won’t see it coming. When you stop and think about it, that is terrifying.
So, perhaps that is the answer. Our fears play out on the issues that are important to us and in the spheres we think we can influence. It is oh so easy to stay rooted in the day to day fears of me and mine. To close in and tune out the bigger picture. Because we are too busy making sure we are OK in the here and now to bring our shared challenges into our attention. Even though bringing fears into the light takes away their power. Connecting with others to solve shared challenges gives us strength. Helps us realise we can if we choose to. that we are better off together than apart. that we can stop feeding our small fears and embrace the uncertainty of life and our ability to prevail. Build resilience and a better future.
Maybe the greatest fear of all spans the spheres. The global and the local. The collective and the personal. At the end of our lives will we be able to look ourselves in the eye and say, ‘yes I/we made the most of it. Acted from respect and mutuality. Helped to restore health and wellbeing. Was part of regenerating the communities that inhabit our home planet. The beauty and diversity of people and other species’. Even if we don’t realise that that fear exists until it’s too late to do anything about it.
When all is said and done, fear is a valuable part of life that has evolved over millions of years to respond to threats. It is not a human phenomenon that we can overcome — it’s hardwired in. What matters is how you respond to it. Courage is not being fearless. It is being full of fear but acting anyway. It is about facing your fears, realising which ones are important and which ones are holding you back. About figuring out what’s important to you. Sticking to your guns and accepting that there may be consequences to being brave. That you might get hurt, but that there are greater things at stake. That getting hurt in pursuit of being brave will make you proud. That giving into fear means that you won’t experience life and all it has to offer.
For me, although I was full of fearful thoughts as I was riding my bike, I did my best to override them. By relaxing and focusing on the opportunities to learn and build my courage. I went faster down the hills than I had before and pushed hard up the hills. Was less cautious on the gravel, and kinder to myself in my nervousness about passing people. I brought myself into the moment to admire the views, soak in the sunshine and relish the fresh air and smell of the sea. It was wonderful. And when I got home, I felt proud. I had enjoyed myself. I felt reinvigorated. Better about myself and the world.
The challenge now is to take that into life more broadly. To remember that it’s not fear itself that’s a problem. That it can be a powerful catalyst for change and growth. That each time you face it, relax and push through you become stronger. More competent and more resilient. More able to expand your horizons and build the life you want, one faltering step at a time.
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