What Is the Voice of Fear?

Late last year I stood atop a 35-foot waterfall, poised to jump.  With a small group and a guide, I’d climbed to the top of the Seven Sisters Waterfalls on the Caribbean island of Grenada, and had jumped down each of the upper falls. Now at the final and largest one, I was intimidated.  No, actually I was terrified.  I stepped out to the edge, but I just couldn’t do it.  I stepped back and let the others go first.  Then there was only me. I hesitated and deliberated.  I tried to imagine myself jumping in perfect form, with a perfect landing.  It’s a technique I’ve used successfully quite often, but this time I just couldn’t get the image.  I told myself it was only because my fear had taken over.  I told myself that the others were impatient and judging me.  I told myself not to be a wimp.  Finally I stepped out to the edge again and forced myself to jump.  As I hit the water, I heard an explosive sound from my spine and felt my legs collapse into paralysis.  While still underwater, I knew I had broken my back, and I’d done it because I wouldn’t listen to myself.  I had ignored the voice inside that I didn’t want to hear, the one that said “Stop!”

Now eight months into my recovery, I’m finally coming to understand that the voice that that urged me to “Jump!” was not the voice of courage, but rather the voice of fear.  Let me explain.

As a child, I was tiny, timid and physically weak.  I was the target of impatience, exclusion and ridicule as a result, so I became afraid of not being able to do what the bigger kids could do. I came to believe that I should be bold and daring no matter what. I learned that fear itself was something to be feared, though I would have used the word “overcome” instead.  So as an adult, I set out to overcome.  I surrounded myself with people who reinforced my belief that daring was the only “right” way to be.  I deliberately put myself in situations that scared me - I learned to climb, backpack and sail. I walked tightropes and clambered up sailboat masts.  I stood my watch on dark and stormy nights at sea.  I stifled that voice within me that counseled caution and restraint. I listened instead to the now-internalized and commanding voice of should’s and judgment, the voice of bravado.  I was thrilled when friends started describing me as “fearless.”

In recent years my relationship with fear changed again.  I was sailing fulltime, often in unfamiliar and unforgiving waters.  I found myself in precarious situations I didn’t know how to handle, faced with tasks I didn’t know how to do or wasn’t able to do.  I was often afraid and didn’t know how to respond to my fear.  Fear was wrong, after all, and I was supposed to ignore that voice inside me that trembled “No no, I can’t do it.” But the voice wouldn’t go away.  It kept cautioning me, and the caution created conflict:  If I obey that voice, I’m a wimp.  If I don’t, something bad is going to happen. When I did obey it, I often got criticized and ridiculed, both by myself and others.  When I didn’t obey it, sometimes I got hurt and sometimes I succeeded.  “Wow, I did it!” was the feeling I had hoped for.  Instead, I just became more doubtful.  I was so afraid of being afraid that I could no longer trust myself to know what was right for me.

And so it was that I stood atop the waterfall in the midst of yet another internal debate.  There was a quiet voice that said “There’s a reason you can’t picture success, a reason you’re holding back.  Don’t jump.  Find another way down.”  But it was drowned out by that commanding voice of bravado that was afraid of being afraid. And so I jumped.

I don’t want to quake in fear, nor limit myself from experiences unnecessarily.  But I also am no longer willing to endanger myself unnecessarily.  The challenge is to know which voice to trust. The majority of advice on the subject will counsel you to disregard any form of fear, employing that rather travel-worn acronym “False Evidence Appearing Real.”  You’ll be told to do what you fear and you’ll be fine; do it because you fear it; do it and you’ll become a better person.  But sometimes what we call fear may actually be caution grounded in information and observation.  Neale Donald Walsch advises, “Caution is not the same as fear, and observation is not the same as judgment. Use your good sense about things, and don't let others talk you out of simple caution and observation by telling you that you are in ‘fear and judgment.’" To me, that’s very good advice.

I want to recognize and cooperate with the voice of caution without judging it as fear; and to respond with genuine courage when the voice of fear shows up. But I can’t do that while bravado is masquerading as courage, demanding my full attention. Only true courage can be trusted to tell me what to do or not do.

The word courage, derived from old French, connotes “action of the heart.”  Dictionaries define bravado as “a pretense of courage.”  Using those meanings as a guide, I have turned to my heart to discern the true voice of courage from the false voice of bravado.    Here are some distinguishing characteristics I’ve found so far:

  • Bravado is impatient and demanding.  Courage is patient and enduring.
  • Bravado fortifies itself with emotions and logic.  Courage resonates as deep and natural knowing.
  • Bravado creates drama.  Courage is calm and centered.
  • Bravado feeds on opinion and image.  Courage comes from within.
  • Bravado carries should’s and have-to’s.  Courage embodies willingness and openness.
  • Bravado appeals to the ego’s desire to be more, better, distinctive.  Courage makes no judgment or comparison.

If I were standing atop the waterfall with today’s wisdom, I would have quite a different experience and outcome.  But if I hadn’t jumped when I did, I wouldn’t have gathered that wisdom, I wouldn’t have learned that what I thought was courage was merely bravado.  I wouldn’t have learned how to listen to my heart.  It’s an ongoing process of discovery for me, and perhaps it is for you too.  If so, I invite you to open your heart to share your explorations through your comments. Together we can give greater voice to the wisdom of the heart.

[Photo courtesy www.billdietrich.me]