“We cannot escape from fear. We can only transform it into a companion that accompanies us on all our exciting adventures.”
~ Susan Jeffers
I have loved the water my entire life. My mother tells of the time when I was an inconsolable infant, crying and fussing. I was plunked down in front of a kiddie pool, and was suddenly happy, slapping and splashing the water with my hands. I grew up snorkeling and swimming in seas and oceans, and as a young teen, competed year-round on swim teams. In college I was on the water with the crew team for four years. I took up scuba in my early 30s so I could dive with my brother who was an underwater photographer. At beginning and end of every day in San Francisco, I look out the windows of my home and see the Bay; I appreciate the calm it brings me. I am competent in water, and happy to be near it.
And now here we are on an island, and the views are beautiful and inspiring. But for the past few weeks, each time we’ve gotten in the skiff to head out for fishing or to put the crab pots in Harlequin Bay, I’ve been afraid. My mouth goes dry, my stomach lurches and stays lurched, and I become hyper alert. As we head out of our cove, the water steadily becomes increasingly rough, and the north side can be decidedly pitchy. The first time we headed out that way, the waves were so high the skiff would ride forward off one wave and come crashing down before the next.
In that moment, I remembered how I learned to tolerate turbulence in a plane: relax and breath and roll with it as much possible. Resisting and holding stiff only made the violent ups and downs travel through my body more directly, and so I felt them more acutely. This is universally true advice for any number of challenging situations – relax and breath into it — but it doesn’t get you out of the spot or keep you from feeling the fear. So I tried to roll with the skiff and waves, while my mantra was “get me to Harlequin Bay” where the water was calm. I also tried to be mindful and take notice: for example, if the sun was out, I somehow felt better, and if it was dark, cloudy and stormy looking, my fear was enhanced.
The return trip has always been better, as we ride with the waves instead of into them. (Well, except for the time we circumnavigated the island and encountered huge (terrifying) white caps in the narrow gap between islands as we headed back the long way. But back to our “better” ride in progress…) The experience was loose and rolling, and almost enjoyable. The skiff would gently roll forward and then lull almost to a stop until the next wave rolled us forward.
On one of those days, we saw wolves. On another day we saw eight harbor seals, and an adult and a juvenile bald eagle flying together. Today we found a crab in our pot, and then saw somewhere between twelve and fifteen otters on the way back. I know that the thrill of those experiences were on the other side of the fear I felt in the skiff.
Like many people, I’ve tried telling myself “don’t be afraid.” I think that’s actually a fairly useless approach to any feeling, although I still do it. Nonetheless, I try to mine the fear to learn something about myself, including how I might manage it. I also know that fear can be useful: when it doesn’t cripple us, it helps us plan and be prepared.
There are many things I’m not afraid of, but somehow they hold less interest for me. They are by definition less intense. Whether it is being in the skiff in rough seas, scuba diving in cold, dark water, or leaving my career before knowing what is next, there is something of the unknown and the wild, and the fear that comes with it, that draws me forward, curious and interested.
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*”Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” Jack Canfield