Facing the Fear

I’m sitting in the hospital waiting for my first ever surgery. I’m nervous. Partly because I imagine these things are always scary and partly because my dad passed away during surgery when he was 36, exactly the same age I am now.

The circumstances of our surgeries are so different that they can’t really be considered the same thing. His was very serious, whereas mine is a simple outpatient procedure. I know this mentally. But emotionally? Still working on it. 

So, I sit in my hospital bed, listing off everyone I know who’s undergone surgery and survived. It’s a long list. My heart keeps racing anyway.

All this has me thinking about fear, which is something I think about a lot, as it so happens.

Fear in my life – as in most modern, first-world lives – isn’t as much about survival as it once was. If it were, I would rarely, maybe never, feed afraid.

That would be nice.

Instead, I feel afraid multiple times a day – sometimes multiple times an hour. Occasionally more than that. I don’t think I’m alone in this. 

It’s not an all-out adrenaline-pumping tiger chasing me fear. Just an underlying current of terror. An existential angst, if you will.

I think fear is a regular part of most of our lives. And most of us know that fear isn’t really a 100% reliable predictor of doom. Usually, it’s not even a reliable predictor of potential doom. But we still let it guide our decisions as if it were.

Just today, I was talking to a fellow patient who wanted to take her family on a special trip to Oregon. But she was afraid to drive them that far. Oregon is only a state away, but the fear was enough to stop her.

The chances of an accident are significantly more likely to occur close to home than on an occasional multi-state road trip. Risk does not increase by going further unless you’re going into a warzone. Oregon is pretty safe. And one could argue that the heightened awareness of unfamiliar settings could actually reduce risk.

But this is how fear works, right? We lay in hospital beds fearing that our routine, minimally-invasive, outpatient surgery will turn lethal. We choose not to take the family trip we long for because it seems far, and far seems scary.

In novelist Karen Thompson Walker’s TED Talk, What Fear Can Teach Us, she shares the story of the 1819 Whaleship Essex. The vessel was hit by a sperm whale in the Pacific ocean, critically damaging the hull. 

As the ship sank, the 20 survivors were faced with a choice.

1. Sail 1,200 miles to the Marquesas Islands

2. Try to make it to Hawaii, through storm-tossed seas

3. Or attempt the 1,500 mile trip to South America

Option 2 was iffy at best. Option 3 likely meant starvation. Option 1 was the clear choice. But the sailors had heard tales of cannibalism on those islands and the mere thought of cannibals was more terrifying than the potential of stormy seas. And the thought of storm seas was more frightening than starvation. So, they decided to try for South America.

Less than half the men survived the trip. Those who did engaged in cannibalism themselves, just to stay alive.

“Just like all great stories, our fears focus our attention on a question that is as important in life as it is in literature – what will happen next?” said Walker. “… how we choose to read our fears can have a profound affect on our lives.”

Fear is real. But we can’t let it rule our lives, depriving us of experiences and opportunities. This life is precious – too precious to waste. And there are so many wonders out there we don’t want to miss. We must be brave – and in so doing, teach our children to be brave too.

I’ve noticed that when I push through the fear and do the thing I’m afraid of, that fear begins to dissipate. And, at least for a minute, I’m free. 

Then, the next thing I know, I’m out of surgery, alive and well – and the fear is completely gone. 

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