The only thing we have to fear

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. “

Franklin D Roosevelt.

I was flung out of my comfort zone quite a lot in the last week. It was entirely voluntary (I was self-flung) but I was pretty nervous going in. And it had the most astounding effect on me.

Let me explain. Last week I had the incredible privilege of taking 4 remarkable young people, students at my school, to SC15, a HUGE academic Supercomputing conference with over 12,000 attendees. The students were well chosen – utterly wonderful people – and I didn’t have a moment’s concern over their behaviour. Nonetheless it is a massive responsibility to take someone else’s children and be responsible for them in a foreign country for a week. That was fear number 1.

Fear number 2 was food. I have a crazy long list of things that will make me unpleasantly unwell if I eat them, and eating anywhere new is always a bit nerve racking, especially because the whole cross contamination issue with gluten is often poorly understood, and a small gluten containing crumb could emphatically ruin my day, making the whole trip a lot more difficult.

Fear number 3 was sleep and energy. I am too tall to sleep comfortably on a plane, and I suffer from various sleep disorders that mean I am generally operating on the edge of sleep deprivation at the best of times. I’ve been to SC before and I know full well it takes a monstrous amount of energy to get through the week. I really wasn’t sure how this was going to go.

Then there were a whole stack of other minor fears clamouring for mind-space in the lead up to the trip. Too many to count.

I was raised to be afraid. Afraid of strangers, afraid of germs, afraid of being let down by my friends. Very, very afraid. And I was taught that the best response to fear was to run away. Don’t do it, don’t risk it, don’t go anywhere near it. I got really good at running away.

But I desperately wanted to go on this trip, to this conference, with these students.

I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore
And I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore
And when do you think it will all become clear?
‘Cause I’m being taken over by the fear

Lily Allen, The Fear.

So I packed up my CPAP machine, filled my luggage with safe snacks, took a deep breath, crushed the urge to turn tail and flee, and booted myself right out of my snug little safety zone.

Once we actually got to the conference I decided that to really make the most of it we needed to talk to as many people as possible, and where they were willing, even to film them. This meant barrelling up to people (strangers!!) and not just talking to them, but asking for favours that might make them quite uncomfortable. By this time my comfort zone was so far out of sight I couldn’t see it with the Hubble, but I did it anyway.

And here’s where the wonderful thing happened. It got easier every time. I met some extraordinarily generous and talented people. I made friends. I learnt heaps. I got more out of this conference trip than I ever expected. And I came back on a high that still hasn’t left me. Who needs drugs when you can get high on how far away your comfort zone is??

Once I got over the jetlag and sleep deprivation and my brain started working again, it finally dawned on me. Fear breeds fear. And it feeds on itself. Every time I don’t do something because I am afraid, my fear feels vindicated. “See?” it demands. “I kept you safe! Running away works! Run away more! Run away again! There’s more to be afraid of!” and I get a little more anxious, a little more afraid, and a lot more withdrawn.

But when I do something in spite of my fear – when I take back control and tell my fear to shut the hell up – it’s my confidence that grows, while my fear starts to shrink. And every time I walk straight up to my fear and fling it out of my way, it gets a little smaller, a little lighter, and its hands around my neck get a little weaker.

I’ve come back from that conference more outgoing, more willing to talk to strangers (this will no doubt be disturbing news for my kids, who already find me rather embarrassing), and more confident than I’ve felt in years. I’ve finally worked out that the best way to kill my fear is to stare it down.

They say you should listen to your fears, that they’re your subconscious telling you there’s something wrong. But it seems to me that if we listen too closely and let fear drive us, then something will indeed be wrong, and it will get more wrong every day.

We’re afraid of refugees. We’re afraid of ISIS. We’re afraid of terrorism. We’re so afraid, and we’re letting it change our behaviour. We’re letting it shrivel us up and lock us down.

There’s no such thing as a life without fear, but it’s up to us whether we allow it to hog the driver’s seat, or keep it in the back with a muzzle on.