This morning I went snorkelling for the first time in years. I was a little anxious about it, because when I put on a snorkel and try to breathe through it, I usually get panicky and start to thrash about, which causes water to come in the top of the snorkel, which causes more panic, until I rip the damn thing out and vow I won’t do anything nearly so stupid as snorkel ever again.
This time, though, I had incentive. We were swimming with seals with Polperro Dolphin Swims. I was determined not to miss a moment of it, and that meant coming to terms with the snorkel. When it came to the splash, I had the usually panicky feelings as I started to breathe through that very strange device, but I forced myself to breathe slowly and deeply, and managed to keep my face in the water until I was distracted by a playful seal. From that point on I was so focused on the wonder of what I was seeing that the whole breathing business became a non-issue. Eventually I was distracted enough that I got water in the snorkel, and I simply tipped it out again, laughed at myself, and went straight back to gazing into the very large eyes of a passing fur seal.
We snorkeled twice more, sometimes hanging onto ropes attached to the back of the boat, and sometimes swimming free, and even when my mask filled with water it didn’t worry me. I had swum away from my fear and left it sinking to the bottom of the Bay.
Later that day we went kayaking in our little 1 person kayak. My 10 year old wanted to sit on the back and kick with her flippers while I paddled, which was not the most stable arrangement. Every time she wriggled (which was, in fact, more or less continuously), the kayak would give an almighty lurch, and so would my heart. The funny thing was that we were kayaking in shallow water, on the flattest of flat seas, and the worst that could have happened if we capsized is that we’d have got wet. Given that it was a 35 degree day, this was also the best that could have happened.
Unfortunately my fear wasn’t having any of this logical argument, and I tensed up every time we lurched, drastically over corrected and very nearly tipped us out, repeatedly. My fear was actually self-instantiating – it was making itself come true, like the most evil of wishes.
I have the same problem when I am riding my bike with my 7 year old on a tag along. When she wobbles, the whole setup lurches from side to side, causing me to develop a death grip on the handle bars, which in turn causes me to over steer, which makes us wobble more… you can probably spot the problem here.
Most of us spend a lot of time in fear. We fear the outcome of certain conversations. We fear change. We fear looking stupid. We fear falling over, making mistakes, or losing friendships. But like me on the bike and the kayak, when we get taken over by the fear, we risk bringing about the very fate that terrifies us. When we fear how a conversation will go, we approach it tense and defensive, and see attacks where none were intended, making things go downhill fast. When we fear looking stupid we scrutinize every possible word or act so hard that we wind up thoroughly tongue tied and paralyzed, and, yes, rather stupid.
I think hell is something you carry around with you. Not somewhere you go.”― Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists
Fear is an important emotion – it protects us from all kinds of catastrophes, like walking out into heavy traffic when the gap isn’t big enough to let us cross safely, jumping off buildings, and dropping our babies. But it’s all too easy to wind up being ruled by your fear, and this is a kind of hell. A self-fulfilling prophecy.
Sometimes the worst that could happen is pretty bad, but if you live your life trying to hide from every potential catastrophe, you can end up barely living. Instead you wait for the crisis, and completely miss out on the joy.
Sometimes we have to focus on the seal, in order to forget the snorkel. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?