“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – attributed to Mark Twain
I recently had a friend ask me about fear, how to think about it and handle it. I pondered for a bit and asked myself why we have fears in the first place.
Do children have natural fear? In some instances, yes, particularly as they age into adolescence. One thing I have learned by being the father of a little boy is that they generally are not scared to jump off the top of a slide or run headlong into a flying flip. It never crossed my son’s mind that this might be dangerous. It’s my job to teach him that. So far, he hasn’t hurt himself doing it. He is better at it now than he used to be, so much so that his first gymnastics coach asked where he learned to tumble. “From being a boy with no inhibition.”
Part of being a martial arts instructor (or any kind of teacher) is getting your students to release the fears they have been taught and quit focusing on the “What ifs.” “What if I get hurt?” “What if what you teach disagrees with what I’ve previously learned?” “What if…”
Some people fear uncertainty. Humans tend to be risk-averse. This is an economic term meaning a person is cautious of losing and seeks a safer investment option. Many people would rather not lose than win. That’s not a paradox. You see this in martial arts too. In competition, we may play it safe and not go for a submission or takedowns because we might lose our position or footing. Afraid to fall. Afraid to fail. I recently told a student at my college, “A ship is safer in the harbor, but that’s not what it was built for.” We should never let the fear of the unknown stop us from seeking new things.
We often don’t realize that our fears are merely misguided perceptions. Seneca wrote, “We are more often frightened than hurt, and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” You might take a step back from whatever is blocking your way and causing your fear. Examine it for what it truly is. Tim Ferris says defining your fears is more important than defining your goals. Those fears may be what is keeping you from obtaining your goals.
Another way to cope with the anxiety caused by fear is to use negative visualization (premeditatio malorum). Think about the absolute worst outcome for a scenario. If it pertains to martial arts, it might be that you break a limb during training (happened to me) or you tear up another student’s knee (also happened to me). In life, it might be that you ponder what would happen if your wife died suddenly of a heart attack or that a drunk driver hit your children. I know this sounds heinous, but by going ahead and processing what you might feel and visualizing the worst cases, you are freer to embrace the adventure and live in the moment. Understanding that life generally happens on the continuum of best case and worst case scenarios, if you prepare mentally for the worst, falling somewhere in the middle is a plus.
One of the most widely realized fears is the fear of death. Are you afraid of dying? Why? I typically look to Stoicism for answers to life, but in the case of death, I will defer to Epicurus. He wrote, “Death is nothing to us.” It is futile to the living because if you are alive, you are not dead. And it is fruitless to the dead because if you are dead, you have cannot care one way or another.
My question is, if death is what stops you in your tracks, perhaps you have not embraced living to its fullest. Marcus Aurelius (back to the Stoics) wrote, “You will give yourself peace of mind if you perform every act of your life as if it were your last.”
I have learned to embrace the uncertainty that drives our fear. I thrive on that chaos, that whirlwind, to use a Biblical analogy. The presence of fear should be an indication of something unknown. If you can harness it and turn it into excitement about learning something new or the potential to overcome an obstacle, it can be a powerful tool. When you step into the ring or on the competition stage, you may lose the match. But if you focus only on winning or losing, you lose sight of a bigger picture: the chance to learn and grow.
What fears are you experiencing? Do they stem from winning/losing? Getting hurt? Dying? What are you doing to use that fear or overcome it?