Why I’m Grateful For Fear

Car accidents aren’t usually a source of gratitude. This one was the exception. My girls and I were driving back from a friend’s house when we entered the intersection heading north. A second later, a car entered the roadway, heading west. I was surprised and with what little wits I was able to gather, turned the wheel enough that after T-boning the other vehicle, there was enough forward momentum to get the car off to the side of the road. The fact that no one in either vehicle was seriously hurt was a miracle. I couldn’t say the same for my vehicle – it was totaled. Notwithstanding our lack of injuries, the accident awakened a fear of the intersection and an anxiety towards driving in general.

As curious as it may sound, I am grateful for the fear and the accident. Fear is a protector – a negative virtue that keeps us safe from harm. It feeds off of our imagination and past experiences. In our minds, we conjure up worst-case scenarios, which our subconscious, or inner mind, take as truth. These home movies that we’ve created inside our heads becomes the fuel that fear feasts on. This alone, is a good reason to make certain that whatever we are imagining as a possible future is both realistic and likely. It’s a waste of our lives to activate protective fear over something that has virtually no chance of occurring.

Another aspect of fear that I am grateful for is that it is also a keeper of mores, which are the cultural or social values of a group. As I see it, mores have two broad categories: personal and social. The personal mores are the cultural values that a person has internalized and exhibits, no matter where they reside at a given moment. If that is an accurate statement, everyone, excepting sociopaths, have lists, for lack of a better word, of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. When we contemplate actions that will violate our mores, then fear kicks in. Our primary motivator to action on one hand, and a resistor of action on the other, seems to be emotion; fear is one of the most powerful emotions that we have at our disposal.

This highlights an important aspect of fear: it is the gatekeeper of change. Or put another way, fear must be overcome if we seek to change ourselves in some way. Most of us prefer the ruts to the untraveled paths and fear keeps us on the well-worn treads of the past. Most of our thoughts are simple repeats of our personal histories. I remember hearing that the average person has, on average, 50,000 thoughts per day and that somewhere between fifty and ninety percent of those thoughts are a repetition of thoughts we had yesterday, last week, last month, and longer. This provides stability in our lives and for those around us. Can you imagine what it would be like if everyone you knew was completely random in every area of their lives? And yet all of our improvement comes from change. At the same time, it is important to remember an old saying: “All improvement is change, but not all change is improvement.” We have to be intentional about what changes we implement.

As thankful as I am for this gatekeeper of change, sometimes it holds me back from being my best self. When this happens, I do my best to apply strategies that minimize or eliminate fear. The most basic of these strategies is visualization. As the inner mind cannot tell the difference between a vividly imagined experience and a real one, the more that I visualize with as much positive emotion as possible, the greater my ability to overwrite the fear-based experience with a positive one becomes.

Another technique, one that I learned many years ago in a book called “Unlimited Power” by Anthony Robbins, I have named the slingshot method. First, I take the memory or the image of the thing that I fear. Then I change the colors within it to black and white. Next, all the sharp edges and clear aspects of the image are turned fuzzy, something close to what a legally blind person might see from a dozen feet away. Then I put a frame around the image. After that, I shrink down the image until it is smaller than a postage stamp. Lastly, I push the image as far away from myself as possible. Once that is complete, I create the image of myself holding a slingshot with a large rock ready to fly. I pull back on the rock in its leather cradle till it is at its breaking point, then let loose. I verbally let out a breath, saying “swoosh” as the rock smashes into the distant image. I watch as the image shatters and the shards fall into nothingness. I repeat the process ten to fifteen times. This usually kills the fear tied to the memory.

That was an important key to overcoming my fear and anxiety over that car crash. I also used a second strategy from that book. I imagine the scene, let it play out, then played it backwards, as if I were watching it in reverse. Then I turn it silly – put funny hats on all involved, have cartoon-like music playing in the background, and so forth. Next I play it at double speed, and then backwards at two times speed. Four times, eight, sixteen – doubling the speed of the playback, both forwards and backwards. At the end of all of this, I play it again at normal speed and review the memory. Every time, it has lost off but the most minor of the negative feelings that were once attached to it.

I still use that intersection often, both by myself and with family. I am still a little cautious, but I feel neither fear nor anxiety as I pass through. I feel gratitude for the strategies that allow me to progress, instead of being held back. I also feel gratitude for the great benefits that fear has to offer – protection and a safeguard against activities and people that would bring me harm.

What I Learned From Hiking

“Scott,” a young scout at the time, taught me a lesson about hiking, one that I’ll scarce forget. If the truth is to be known, that experience that loomed before us at the bottom of the switchbacks in northern Colorado stays with me still. I wonder if I could have handled it better and I have yet to receive an answer.

But first, a bit of background. My son was involved in scouting and at different times of the year, his troop went on week long camps. One such camp was taking place in Estes Park, Colorado in the Rocky Mountain National Park. The troop leaders asked if I could help out and I agreed. I had the time off from work and enjoyed camping.

I spent many weekends as a teenager, hiking and camping in my own scout troop. Most summers, the other scouts and I would spent Fridays and Saturdays exploring the mountains near our homes. I have many fond recollections of those camps – picking and eating wild fruit along the trail, watching a fellow scout attempt to catch prawns in a stream by sticking his BB gun in the water and firing it at the creature (the gun never worked after that), and eating what we then called hobo dinners: potatoes and ground beef wrapped in foil and tossed into the fire to cook. Those memories pulled me into helping my son’s camp.

After a two hour car ride, we located our camp site, set up the tents and other gear. Once settled in, the scout leader informed everyone that the culminating hike consisted of a twenty mile hike that ran over several ridges, making the whole trek a challenge. He wasn’t completely heartless though – he planned on several smaller hikes to get everyone ready. I was grateful for that as well – even though I was in good shape, the shorter trails made it easier to handle the challenge that the twenty mile hike would become.

The strategy to get everyone prepared for the long journey and the scouts handled the less grueling trails without much difficulty. I imagine that these treks first built stamina and the confidence in the scouts, so when they tackled the monster mountain, they didn’t quit. Still, in the back of everyone’s mind, the final hike crept ever closer until the eventful day arrived.

The hike started as each had before. There was a steep climb and the more active members of the troop shot ahead and we had to call them back before they disappeared in the distance. The excitement of the journey, the traveling upon a new trail adds a quickness to our steps. A start of the journey often does that – there is something special about a new beginning that quickens the heart.

Yet that elation does not last forever. What was once fresh becomes routine and we fall back into old habits. We plodded along the trail, up steep inclines and down the other side of the ridge. Breaks were doled out at the top of every hour, but unlike the others, I did not sit nor lie down. Long ago, I learned that when a persons sits for a while and then has to move again, legs and feet ache worse than if a person never rested in the first place. I thanked my wise Maori scoutmaster of my youth for sharing that knowledge with me.

We reached the halfway point, ate, and rested on the mountainside, enjoying the fresh breeze and camaraderie of our fellow scouts. Too soon, it was time to start again, but at least the group was refreshed and ready to tackle the second half of the journey. This proved to be the more difficult part.

By the time that I reached the three-quarters mark of the hike, most of the other scouts lay far ahead of me. Hanging back, I made sure that no stragglers were left behind. Three of us made up the tail of the hikers: the scoutmaster, myself, and Scott – a chubby and earnest young scout that struggled with the trail. I leaned heavily upon my walking stick and I looked ahead and saw that switchbacks zig-zagged up the side of the ridge. It was going to be a difficult climb.

Where I saw a challenge, Scott saw a brick wall. His heart failed him and fell to the ground, his hope drained. I sympathized with what he felt, but we had to get over the ridge to get back to the camp. The scoutmaster and I told him that we were going to rest and then take on the switchbacks. Scott didn’t budge. We let him know that we weren’t able to carry him and no rescue team was going to save us. He shook his head, refusing to listen. We yelled at him and told him to move. That stirred him a little.

Encouraged, in firm, more moderate voices, we told him the only person that would get him out was Scott. Eventually, he stood and we made our way up the mountain ridge. Slowly, to be sure, but we persisted. We made it back to the camp and celebrated.

I still wonder if that was the best approach to motivate Scott. I’d like to think that calm persuasion would have won out at the end. But hiking his taught me that you have to use what you have. Spending strength at the beginning of the hike makes the rest of the journey that much more difficult. And never expect others to carry you out if you still have options, even if you move at a pace that makes a tortoise snicker. That is what you do. And I’ll always thank Scott for that lesson.

October 28, 2019

Gratitude For Disappointment

Once upon a time, when I taught high school, I had a discussion with an English teacher I’ll call Cliff. We shared stories of our first experiences teaching. He told me that his first day was the hardest. I wasn’t surprised. He caught me off-guard with his next sentence – after the day’s classes ended, he shut the door, collapsed in his chair, and wept. The students were unruly, the classroom management difficult, and the lessons ineffective. I had known Cliff a long time, back before we taught our first lessons, and he always appeared confident and sure of himself. I never imagined it possible for him to break down. He experienced disappointment at the highest level.

To my mind, disappointment is the gap between expectation and result. Prior to his classroom awakening, Cliff dreamt dreams of classroom discussion where students participated, engaged in group activities,and gathered knowledge. This type of thinking happens to most, if not all of us. We set goals, imagine the outcome, and then make it happen. Only the reality is that the activity of life never matches what we envision in our heads. This because we make assumptions about what it takes to reach our objectives, and the assumptions are based on what I call “virtues.”

Other may refer to them as characteristics, attributes, or values, but I feel virtues best reflects their nature. We adopt them to assist us in getting the meat out of life. They can be grouped into two broad categories: virtues of the mind and virtues of the heart. Virtues of the mind are the aspects of ourselves that deal with our intellectual activities. They guide us in navigating the workplace, public interactions with others, executing personal habits, enjoying hobbies, and so forth. These virtues include creativity, risk tolerance, pleasure, entertainment, and financial success. The other side of the equation has the virtues of the heart, which attends to the emotional and relational aspects of our lives – with ourselves and others. A partial list of these virtues are love, patience, empathy, humility, and integrity.

Keep in mind that each virtue has an opposite, a negative aspect, if you will. Creativity has dullishness, financial success has poverty, patience has impetuousness, and love has apathy. The positive virtues create openness and vulnerability, while the negative virtues create walls and barriers to protect from the inevitable heartbreak.

Now, the question to ask is this: are these virtues I am building my expectations around pushing me towards my best self or away from it? People often embrace negative virtues because they cannot handle the pain and rejection that accompanies an open heart. However, choosing to adopt negative virtues may offer benefits in the short term, but they they stymie growth and deep personal connections over a lifetime. When one or both people in a relationship build walls around their passions, a superficial association is the only result.

Of course we are not going to throw open the gates of our emotions to everyone we meet, but we must be mindful of our virtues and where we have placed our default settings.

When we have taken this step and have developed an awareness for how we are installing our virtues in our relationships – then we can truly exhibit gratitude for our disappointments. If we focus on our expectations and their attendant negative virtues, then we can be grateful that we now know what we have sown into our hearts and minds. We possess the ability to alter our direction, to adjust our course to unite with our best selves. For we become who we want to be and there is much in that to be grateful.

Conversely, when we look at our virtues and find them to be positive and directing us towards our best selves, we have great cause to celebrate with gratitude. We are marching in the direction of our goals. And yet we often feel disappointment because the reality of our lives does not match our expectations of that reality. In most cases, if we are living according to the positive virtues, then the gap between the two is of time. If this is the case, it is an opportunity to turn an analytical eye to where we are. If we are on the path to where we want to go, recalibrate the expectations to match the speed of accomplishment to the ultimate destination.

However, it is possible that we can be living the positive virtues of the mind and heart and still never close the gap between expectation and reality. We must be at peace with that and we can be grateful for the freedom to stretch ourselves, even if that desired outcome, that treasured outcome, never materializes.