February 14, 2013

Learning To Throw Caution To The Wind

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What is the issue?

Fear is so often accompanied by a sense of displacement. I have talked myself out of doing many fearsome things by telling myself that I don’t “belong” to whatever newness is presented before me, that it is “not for me.” The new challenge, or threat, depending on how you look at it, starts to look like an angry mob, when in reality, if the mob exists at all, it’s not paying much attention to me. This isn’t middle school, but the wounds of middle school, or some “inner middle school” of the mind, causes the brain to say: Do not proceed. Where does this feeling come from, this conviction that we should walk lightly on the periphery of someone else’s turf, if we walk at all?

I was nearly two weeks late to the world. I clearly heard the mumblings of encouragement from the people on the other side of my mother’s stomach and determined that I didn’t “belong” to Earth, that it “wasn’t for me.” Once reluctantly in the world, I actually had a pretty good time. I liked people, I liked school. But I would be branded with the following proclamation as a child: “You tend to take your time with things.” This by my mother. “And you do them well,” she felt the need to add, “when you eventually decide to do them.”

An early example: a big slide at the local playground. It was yellow, and it undulated as it approached the ground. So it was doubly intimidating: the height of the thing, which was reached by climbing a long ladder, and the undulations, which I thought would make it easier to just fall off the side halfway through the journey to certain death. My sister, six years older than I, took to this slide without reservations. I would watch her a couple of times, then amble wordlessly back to the small slide, where my mom was waiting: home base. No one pushed me to try the big slide. I wish they had. But my family is not exactly of the daredevil variety, nor really of the athletic variety. Most of them have all had athletic successes of some kind, but all, except me, decided at some point that sports were, well, “not for them.”

Being four, what was I afraid of? I had never felt substantial pain. I had never broken any bones, nor experienced the death of a loved one, not even a pet. I still have yet to break a bone. Now I see that this is due to caution, not luck. As a child I apparently had a clear understanding of death, and playground slides as accelerants of death.

My world veered between suburbia and large cities, with nothing in between save for an eerie college town, and my grandmother’s hometown, where my parents lived for a couple of years while I was in college. London, New York, and Nicosia were my worlds. Nicosia was a hot, dry, busy, polluted, confusing and intermittently bucolic place: palm trees and bougainvillea set to a soundtrack of speeding cars and mopeds. This was a safe world, though the description of Nicosia might not indicate it. A risky endeavor would be piling, seatbelt-less, in the back of a taxi with my friends, and flying at 100 miles an hour around the outskirts of the city from one friend’s house to another, as if in a moon buggy. The edges of Nicosia did resemble the surface of a barren celestial body, maybe Mars. In cases such as this, I was always the only person concerned that we were going too fast.

In Cyprus kids would routinely fall off fairground rides and die. Still, we’d go to the fair when it came. My friend would grab my hand and drag me around. Running, laughing, pushing past people, it looked like we were up to no good. But the riskiest thing we did was visit the haunted house, or watch the pirate ship ride rock back and forth, from the safety of the ground, to see if anyone would fall out of it and die. Other people’s risks were entertainment enough for me.

There was a water park in the resort town a couple of hundred miles from Nicosia, and kids died there too, even more frequently. Some of the rides there looked like fantastical sketches of World’s Fair attractions that never got built, not things you would actually allow be built, much less let humans ride on. I would watch people slide down these slides while lounging on an inner tube in the lazy river.

Happily, cautious people tend to attract daredevils. The daredevils are only egged on by people like us. The braver set seem to like the idea of taking wimps under their wings. I’ve had friends who liked to start fires, jump off fairly tall structures, steal things, pull pranks on innocent people, and just generally subject the world to their will, and their whims. These friends drag me out of my realm of safety, and thank god, because I can’t think of any time when I didn’t enjoy doing something with them out there in the land of no gravity.

But it’s not other people who are going to urge some fundamental shift in our beings, to teach us that when we do new things, we’re not doing something “out of character” — that we’re just living. We have to do that ourselves. For Americans, it’s hard to imagine growing up without “extracurriculars” being the chief occupier of our spare time. But in Cyprus, we weren’t forever being groomed for a varied, accomplishment-filled college application. We spent most of our time in pools. This left more time for reading. It also left more time for shopping, applying Sun-In, plucking eyebrows, and just generally looking in the mirror. I wouldn’t trade those years for hundreds of hours of soccer or lacrosse practice or arts camp, which is what I imagine my American peers were doing, for anything. But I am glad that for high school, I was back in America, ostensibly, at a school where I was pushed, really pushed, to explore different things and find something that I loved.

I tried swimming and was terrible at it, but I stuck with it anyway. The biggest accolade I received on the swim team was the award “Favorite Canadian Swimmer.” Never mind that I was the only Canadian swimmer on the team. Swimming was my Rosaline and running was my Juliet. Without the intense fervor I had devoted to swimming, I don’t know if I would have been mentally ready for running, to which I would devote much of eight years and a quite a bit of my adult life. I was evidently built for running and not swimming. My P.E. teacher had pulled me aside to tell me this in first grade, taking my hand, walking me up to the gymnasium, and plopping me on the balance beam: Please promise me you’ll try track as soon as you’re old enough. This was weird. But I did. Eventually.

So much of running is mental, and being awful at swimming strengthened my mind. By the spring of sophomore year I was ready to elbow my way out of a pack of nervous, cold, jangling, skinny girls at the start of the first 3000-meter race of the season. I shoved and I surged, two actions quite antithetical to my personality — except I need to stop saying things like this. I looked back after awhile and saw to my surprise that no one was there.

Never mind that running is one of the least risky and most boring sports there is. That didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was decent at running, and the ensuing confidence blew open doors in my brain: now I was going to dress in a way that didn’t suggest I wanted to be invisible. I was going to flirt with someone that I liked, instead of waiting for him to come to me. I was going to play the violin like I actually wanted to be heard. I was going to learn a sport that involved more than putting one foot in front of the other, replacing my shoes every few months, and stretching adequately.

When I was home from college one winter, my parents’ town in Nova Scotia turned into a snowy mound for three weeks. There was so much snow that when you walked down the sidewalk to the center of town, you walked through a tunnel of snow nearly as high as you were, the snowblowers having formed thick five-foot-high walls on either side of you. I decided to go to the local ski area in Windsor, Nova Scotia, “the birthplace of hockey,” as the colorful sign on the highway reminded me, to learn how to snowboard. I had a month with nothing to do, and for some reason I decided I was going to go snowboarding by myself instead of inviting my old friends, who lived an hour away, to come with me. I suppose I was feeling sulky and antisocial, as so many 19-year-olds do, and I decided I would do this fairly terrifying thing all on my own, which of course ensured that it would be even more terrifying. It also ensured that I would only be subjected to the ridicule of strangers, not the ridicule of my friends. An odd perk, in retrospect.

Once out there with all my rented accoutrements on, I felt that old feeling: I do not belong here. I am not invited. Everyone else, even the three-year-olds, appeared so competent, confident, fearless. The place seemed filled with attitudinal teenage boys who pushed rudely past me on the way to the lifts and refused to acknowledge my existence as we rode up together. My whole life suddenly seemed to depend on getting off the lift without killing them, myself, or accidentally not getting off the lift and just riding around the loop forever, alone.

I took a lesson, which was humiliating but helpful, and by the second run, sliding cautiously down to the bottom of the bunny slope, falling down onto my side into a soft snow bank as a means of stopping, I had fallen in love. To be more precise, endorphins in my brain were surging out of their receptors at unprecedented levels. All I wanted was to get back on the lift, go back down the slope, and get back on the lift, and go back down the slope. Forever. The endorphins were powerful enough to obscure the significant fatigue that resulted from doing all this for the first time. I headed up to the main slope after an hour, my legs visibly shaking as I stood in line with the clump of teenage boys, waiting to get on the lift. I went down ten times. I slept for about twelve hours that night, and I went back the next day, in spite of feeling an excruciating, dull pain in every region of my body, as if my bones were made of lead.

The strange gift of running meant that I just wanted to be good at snowboarding. I wanted so badly to be good. What I didn’t recognize was that I didn’t need to be. Snowboarding would deliver me a high that was very different from a runner’s high, and so much easier to obtain. The highs I had gotten from running were, at least at that point, very accomplishment-based. The high from snowboarding came from the fact that I was basically participating in a real-world video game. It was guaranteed to be risky, but it was also guaranteed to be fun, whereas running was neither risky nor, if I’m going to be perfectly honest, terribly fun. That’s not to knock running. But running is a different species. It is cardiovascular meditation.

I don’t know what happened in the many years that have passed since my romance with snowboarding, but after that blizzard, I didn’t snowboard again. My parents left the Maritimes for a Mediterranean island, and I moved to another big city to lose myself in the safety of museums and books and bars and small apartments. But during another blizzard recently, I decided to try skiing for the first time. It was a replica of the snowboarding experience: terrifying, then surprisingly easy, then fun, then addictive. It was only after a day of skiing that I remembered what snowboarding had felt like.

The joy of snowboarding had lain dormant somewhere in my mind for years. I couldn’t have told you much about what the first experience had felt like. But why not? There was so much happiness attached to the event. If our memories are reinforced by the emotions we felt when first experience them, why couldn’t I remember anything about something that had made me so happy?

Fear trumps everything else in our brain, because there’s a direct connection between fear and life — fear and survival. When I say I “don’t feel like” doing something out of my comfort zone, I have learned to recognize that laziness is usually not be the real motivation at play. Fear will block out the happiest memories if they were obtained in a way that the brain reads as risky. Saying, But I’ve been brave before doesn’t always work. If you are a risk-averse person, or have been frightened by some risky situation, many things will read as risky. The only way to disable fear is to attack it with the one thing it can’t compete with: action. TC mark

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