is a curse and a blessing.
Fear exists, it would seem, to protect us from harm. We fear fire, for good reason. We fear to mess around with some other guy's wife, for good reason. We fear using fissionable materials for our science project, for good reason. Sometimes we conquer these fears. Sometimes we don't. Sometimes we conquer them when we really shouldn't have.
Fear protects us. Fear is good for us. And we hate it. Read all the passages in the previous post, or any like them. Then try to find similar passages that praise fear. There are a few, but they are scarce. Most people are, so to speak, afraid to praise Fear.
We use 'fearless' as a term of praise, unless we're talking about an airline pilot or a brain surgeon, in which case we would prefer them to be cautious to a fault. Are we for fearlessness, or against it? We say 'Look before you leap', but 'He who hesitates is lost'. So what do we want? Do we want bold, impulsive, fearless action, or do we want worry and caution?
Ideally, I think we would like caution without fear. We would like due diligence and foresight without the negative emotion of fear that drives these things. But I don't think we can have that. I don't think we are evolved enough. At the core, we are still animals, in whom fear is a useful and necessary motivator.
Fear is good, but too much fear is bad. I want my airline pilot to be appropriately fearful of bad takeoffs and bad landings, and what happens if you don't de-ice the plane thoroughly. But I don't want him to be so nervous and anxious that he is a jittery mess who can't fly an airplane.
I was thinking of this during my recent Grand Canyon trip. As I mentioned, the first day was tougher than expected. I arrived at the bottom of the canyon completely exhausted, with legs so weak they were actually shaking. I try to leave myself a margin of safety in my hiking, and not count on needing my last ounce of strength to arrive at my destination, but on my first day, down the Boucher Trail, I had eaten deeply into that margin of safety, and come close enough to the edge of my endurance to alarm me. My next two days were not going to be strenuous, I was only planning on hiking 8 to 10 miles a day, but on the fourth day out I had planned to hike 15 miles, the last five miles straight up the canyon, rising about 3000 feet. I hadn't worried about this when I had planned my trip, because I had done almost the same hike before, just 2.5 miles shorter (starting at Cedar Spring camp rather than Monument Creek), and that 2.5 miles was over moderately easy terrain.
It wasn't until I arrived at Boucher Camp exhausted that it occurred to me that although I hike the Canyon every year or two, my previous hike over that particular 13 mile stretch had been about 12 years ago. I had been in my mid 30's. I was now nearly 50. I clearly wasn't as robust as I had been before. Was I in trouble? What could I do about it?
Over the next two days I fretted. I studied the map. I studied the map again. I counted my PowerBars. I started shorting myself on PowerBars so as to have a few extra for energy on the last day. Suppose it took me much longer than expected? It was late October, and it was getting dark by 6:30 (Arizona is on Mountain Standard Time year-round). Could I walk the last few miles in darkness? I had a flashlight. Would I have enough batteries? I could cannibalize the four AA's in my digital camera.
And so my thoughts went, round and round, exploring possibilities, walking down different algorithms of action, if event X occurred, or if Y occurred. What was the worst case? What was the best case? But always, there was the undercurrent of fear, the fear of the unknown, unknown because I truly did not know what I was physically capable of any longer, and I feared that I had gotten myself into a situation I could not get myself out of.
I was not physically fearful: I didn't tremble, my mouth wasn't dry, my appetite was good, I was sleeping well. But for two days, I don't think ten minutes went by without my turning over in my mind, for the millionth time, my proposed hike on my fourth day out, and trying to reassure myself that everything was was going to be okay. Fear was oppressive. It was constantly present, coloring every thought and dampening every pleasure. I was about 90% sure I was okay, that I would be able to do the hike. It was that remaining 10% of doubt that I couldn't shake, that I couldn't ignore, that made me fret endlessly.
The outcome was anti-climax. I hiked the 10 miles from Monument Creek to Indian Gardens in about 6 hours, and the remaining five miles up the Bright Angel Trail to the rim in about 3 hours, not a bad pace for an old guy. I arrived on the rim well before dark. Once I was 5 miles into the Monument to Indian Gardens leg, I realized I was going to be okay: my wind was fine, my legs were holding out, I was making satisfactory time. At that point I could relax, and just enjoy the hike. All fear vanished, like a curtain lifting.
It's funny. Hiking in the backcountry of the Canyon is always tough, and usually on my hikes there is one day that is sort of a 'dark night of the soul', during which I'm filled with doubts, and wonder why in hell I'm doing this, and vow never to do it again. But then I make camp at the end of the day, eat a filling dinner, relax my tired legs, and sleep, and by the next morning, I'm feeling okay again, ready to go on, happy to be in the Canyon once again. This year, however, that 'dark night of the soul' lasted for most of the trip.
I'm probably not conveying this well. It's been more than a month since I returned, and the memory of exactly how I felt at the time has faded considerably. But it was a somewhat unnerving experience, and made me think about the nature and uses of fear.