Bicycling was one of my passions as a kid. At the age of 10 or 11, I would ride my green three-speed Schwinn into the countryside and go until I got lost. Then I’d find my way home again. That was my game, a way of bringing adventure into my bland suburban life. I did it over and over, until I was well into my teens, exploring my surroundings—and in the process, I’m afraid, permanently damaging my sense of direction!
Years later, traveling in Puerto Rico in the off season, my anarchist boyfriend Owen and I took a ferry to the little island Culebra and camped on a magnificent white beach that we had practically to ourselves. One afternoon we bicycled into town for groceries and got distracted, poking around town. By the time we set out to return to camp, night had fallen, and a dark night it was. Our bikes had no lights, and there were no streetlights, no moon, no stars. As we plunged into the forested hills between town and the beach, the road arced into utter darkness. I could see absolutely nothing—not the road, not Owen up ahead.
I followed the sound of his wheels until I couldn’t hear them anymore, and then, almost terrified, wondered what to do. There seemed to be no alternative—I kept going, riding blind. I kept up a steady pace, curving my path by intuition. I don’t know how I followed the road without running off one side or the other. I reached our campsite exhilarated and amazed, so much so that I wasn’t very angry with Owen for leaving me behind.
Four years ago, I stood at the mouth of a cave in the Arizona wilderness. It was a tunnel prospectors had blasted at the foot of a hill, just wide and high enough to walk into with your arms stretched out, rough-walled, and twenty or thirty yards deep. The person who’d taken me there told me it had an L at the end. He said we shouldn’t go in because there was a good chance an animal lived in there—possibly bobcat, mountain lion, or bear—and because of the L, we might not know it was there until we were face to face with it. This man was a wilderness survival instructor and had once fought off a mountain lion. The fact that he would not go in the tunnel was impressive.
But I returned later, alone, determined to walk all the way into the tunnel and touch the back wall. I wanted to do it because I’d begun to see that fear was paralyzing me and keeping me from doing things I needed and wanted to do. I needed to prove I could push through it.
As soon as we stop living in fear, it will begin to loosen its hold on our lives. We begin to feel more freedom and joy. We make room for Truth. As we begin to experience fear this liberates our true self and opens up our heart to desire and possibilities previously subdued.
I don’t travel in order to trigger my fear, although it does do that. When you travel, you cannot avoid risks, try as you might. You’re in an unfamiliar place, you might not speak the language, and any number of things could go wrong at any moment. Even the most coddled travelers, the ones who take their comfort zones with them, expose themselves to some degree of risk. Besides, really, avoiding risk doesn’t mean you avoid fear—it only means you allow it to dictate your choices.
Traveling alone doesn’t scare me, in itself. I’m not afraid to sleep in a train station, hike in the jungle, or walk at night, city or country. But recently I’ve come face to face with a huge fear: people. I was shy as a child and even into adulthood, and I hadn’t realized how much I still carried that fear in me, until I began to travel and found myself isolated and lonely. I wasn’t meeting people, and I was missing out on the kinds of human connections that travel is famous for.
I’m fine in structured interactions—booking a room or making a purchase. But if the interaction is going to be of a personal nature, I want to shy away, avoid, or go rigid and formal. “They’re not going to be impressed by me”; “they’ll wonder why I’m even approaching them.” I fear being condescended to or somehow ridiculed—or merely ignored, as if I need not exist. I know this is all irrational. I have fairly good self-esteem, within myself—I just don’t expect other people to like me as much as I do! I imagine all of this is simply a once-burned-twice-shy response to painful interactions that happened when I was a kid.
Unfortunately the next step is that I resort to sour-grapes arguments to avoid interactions: “I probably wouldn’t enjoy talking to them, either.” From there the pretexts for avoidance can become dark: “They’re probably not even nice people. Probably boring/selfish/arrogant/superficial/etc.” It horrified me when I realized that I’ve been carrying around these inexplicably cynical feelings about the human race, and it’s only because I’m scared to talk to people. What a great, sad illustration of how unloving fear is.
The release of fear allows us to live in harmony with love, and love is the way that we gain life.
I’ve only just begun to take steps to overcome this fear. I have to find the guts to say hello to strangers, and not only that, but to be open and authentic when I do it—not hiding behind any facade, and not putting up orange tape around my true self. Some say travel is the ideal situation to experiment with being more open, because you meet so many people, the encounters are usually brief, and you’ll probably never see each other again. The very fact that all of that is true makes my terror flare up—I have no excuses!
I know from experience that it’s possible to work through fears and that what is on the other side of those doors can be unimaginably joyful and good. Where there was fear, you find freedom: freedom to connect, to live more richly, and to love, both in your heart and in action. I hope as I travel I’ll have the courage to keep opening and stepping through these doors, one after another. Who knows what marvelous things—and people—might be out there where I’m currently afraid to go?
The cessation of life lived in fear does not depend on any external circumstance, event or person. It is in our hands alone and depends upon only one thing – the personal choice to cease listening to fear and instead to use our will in the direction of love, truth and ethics.
I’ve learned a lot about working through fear from posts by Mary Magdalene on her blog, Notes Along the Way, about her own experiences with fear. The quotes here are from her post Living in Fear & the Freedom to Choose Differently.