Kneeling at the side of an opened door of a plane flying at an altitude of 15000 feet, staring out wildly at the vast expanse of the planet, wind roaring in my ears, heart hammering, waiting for the signal to jump. My Arms are out in the rushing side wind, ready to catch the air when I exit the plane. And then…. something else over takes me. The physical sensation of fear overpowers my drilled training and I reach for the sides of the door either side of me where I grip tightly, with white knuckles, my instructors glancing knowingly at one another.
This is where I think my journey to understanding fear began. Right there on the edge of that plane. Why didn’t my body or my mind obey my inner command to jump? Silly question you might think? But I don’t think it is. I want to jump desperately for months and months. I have thought about it endlessly and obsessively, watched hundreds of videos, practiced many hours on my bedroom floor arched as though in flight. And yet here I am, stood on the edge of my dreams, clinging onto the plane I’m supposed to be jumping out of. Why is my fear stopping me from doing something I so desperately want? It occurs to me now (not at that moment in the plane) that this is a problem that every person has. We have all not done something we wanted because of our fears and our expectations of people or situations which are more often than not, wrong. All missed a potential date, a potentially fun activity because our minds have been dominated by fear and anxiety? If people were honest it would be a shared experience that fears has inhibited our progression in life.
Which leads me to the question of what actually is fear? The definition given by most psychologists and biologists is that fear is an innate physical response that has developed through evolution and that enables us to protect ourselves from danger. They suggest that is the fear response that has allowed the survival of the human species and protected us from extinction, now being able to process and respond to the dangers around us. And this physiological response occurs when our minds perceive danger and it ensures that our bodies are able to do a variety of things such as fight the danger or run away. Adrenaline is pumped through our bodies ensuring that our heart rate increases, thus providing more oxygen to the potentially needed muscles. Gastric acids are flooded into the stomach to ensure the fast breaking down of food so we have less food to carry in our fight or flight. And anticoagulants are released into the blood so that if we are hurt, we bleed less. And it was this physiological response that had been and was currently dominating my actions. Because when you can’t fight or run away, what the body does is freeze instead. Play dead so to speak. These are the three survival mechanisms that have evolved in the human species and they have allowed us to survive. And there I was. Frozen in the door of the plane, with my instructors either side of me waiting for the inevitable refusal to exit.
And in that door (which I will vividly remember for the rest of my life), I remember listening to my thoughts, the voice of my inner survival warriors. “Don’t do it, you could die, is isn’t safe, you could die, don’t do it”, keeping up their relentless persuasion for me to not jump and stay safely in the plane. And I almost submitted to them, almost bowed down to their superior knowledge. But in the depths of all if that mind chatter created by my so called survival warriors, I can hear the real me, the person who knows what they want of out of life, the person that has dreams and desires, hopes and wishes. And that voice is screaming that we can’t go back to the life we had before, without adventure, without emotion and without challenge. And don’t get me wrong, my life isn’t bad. I’m a teacher, I have a nice house, a nice car and money in the bank. But to me all of those things lacked meaning and brought me no joy, as I define joy. I felt emotionless in life, going to work, coming home, repeating. Essentially I was lonely. Skydiving was going to be my way of changing my life, giving me a new passion and allowing me the opportunity to develop a new social circle. And it was all of these things that I remembered with stark clarity in the miliseconds it must have taken to have those thoughts. And In that moment where my true voice is getting louder, I can feel my own self taking back the puppet strings of my body from the survival warriors innately stuck in my mind. I released my grip from the side of the plane, reached out into the world of adventure… and jumped.
It was Will Smith that said, when he jumped “There’s zero fear. You realize at the point of maximum danger is the point of minimum fear. It’s bliss. … The best things in life are on the other side of terror, on the other side of your maximum fear”. And it couldn’t be more true. As my feet leave the plane, when there is the most danger apparent, fear actually disappears and is replaced by a feeling you will never get when you don’t experience things such as this. Utter heaven and harmony in mind and body, living in that exact moment; not worrying about work, the past or the future, only now. The feeling of flying through the air, through our amazing atmosphere, where you can see what the birds can see, feel what the birds can feel. I have never felt anything like it. It is both physically and psychologically phenomenal and most people are incapable finding the words to describe the magnitude of the amazingness. Something commonly stated amongst skydivers is “to those that don’t jump, no explanation is possible and to those that do, no explanation so necessary”. And again this rings so true. Because the awesomeness that comes with actions such as this are only reserved for those brave enough to challenge their fears, to overcome their inner survival warriors.
And I know I’m talking about skydiving here. But this rings true for all fears does it not? Our rewards for overcoming fears are positive emotions. Overcoming your fear of talking to someone you fancy, results in feeling excited and good about yourself. Overcoming fears about public speaking, of job interviews, of dates, of situations results in increased confidence, happiness and pride. We always feel good when we overcome something and there is a positive outcome. Of course there isn’t always a positive outcome, which is what our survival warriors like to remind us of. But inevitably that might not be the case and how much should we miss out on because there was a small potential to be a bad outcome. That person you fancy and were scared to ask out, isn’t always going to fancy you in return. But sometimes they might. Imagine how many awesome things we have missed out on in life because of these irrational inbuilt fears. Imagine the different lives we could have had, had we not let our fear response dominate our choices and actions. Sadly, I believe that we have a culture that lives in perpetual fear, of change of rejection, of loss, of failure to achieve. And inevitably this results in negative outcomes. Fear of rejection means we never open ourselves up to being loved, fear of change means we miss opportunities to grow and experience more of life, fear of failure to achieve can often mean we spend our lives working and forget to actually live. So this leads me to the question, has our fear response become null and void? Is it inhibiting the development of the human species? Should we find ways to remove fear altogether? The answer to this is no.
In my experience those with no fear make silly decisions, irrational choices that will result in negative outcomes. Think about the bankers for example. With no fear of losing all of the public’s money, they made senseless and irrational choices that resulted in obvious losses. Fear makes you consider what could go wrong and strategise around it. It makes you check your kit before leaving the plane and ensures that we plan and prepare for when shit goes down. BUT fear should not be making choices for us, guiding us away from potentially harmful situations or removing us from them completely. Fear should be there to guide us and support us to make better decisions but it should not be allowed to make our decisions for us. We’ve given fear too much power, allowed it to be what guides our destiny. We have put too much faith in its ability to protect us. And in doing so, we are in danger of halting the development of our species and denying ourselves many wonderful experiences in life. Which is a shame. Because surely that’s what living is about? Feeling, seeing, touching, tasting, experiencing? Had I of allowed my fear to guide my actions in the plane that day, I wouldn’t have the same life as I have now, where I just won skydiver of the year at my home drop zone. Controlling my fear that day changed my destiny.
I have never felt so proud of myself when I landed. A feeling of utter amazement at myself, ecstatic elation at the magnitude of what I had just experienced. A feeling of ecstasy that cannot really be described. And I have vowed that these are the moments I want to remember when I die. These moments of achievement that feel so incredibly amazing. So my challenge to you is this; make it your new year’s resolution to work on one of your fears, not avoid them. Create opportunities where you can work on them, challenge them, overcome them. And finally put fear in its place where it belongs i.e. in a support role, rather than a leadership one. Come on people, go have some amazing experiences where fear doesnt define who we are.