‘Make fear a tailwind, not a headwind’. – Jimmy Iovine
As I write this, it is Easter holiday. I am in Sri Lanka as it is sadly been attacked by several suicide bombers. Whilst my family and friends all over the world try to reach me to make sure I am ok, I remain calm. I’m planning to stick to my original plan during my last few days in the country. I decided not to let fear win.
This is how a fearful girl looks like: fearless.
I am writing this to prove this decision comes from a lot of warmth in my heart, and I hope this may inspire some of you out there to do the same. This is a good life perspective no only for moments of crisis, but for everything in life.
On my third day into the sabbatical, I met this German guy. Amongst other things, he was telling me about an epiphany that he had a couple of years ago, which inspired him to rethink his relationship towards fear. He said to me, with a bit of a smug face, that he became completely FEARLESS! Yup, apparently he managed to create a technique to cut fear out of his life. Well, the date didn’t work out, but one thing kept bugging me: I just couldn’t accept a fearless life as a desirable one.
Fear may be as old as life on Earth. Our first neural systems had the role to react to any threat that could fight against our most ancient life forms. With evolution, our fear response was developed in the amygdala, a more primitive part of the brain which has the role to sense how a particular stimulus should be emotionally dealt with (well, which is quite commonly to freak out like a diva). Thanks to evolution again, our brain has further evolved from the amygdala, and now also has a ‘judge’ of our emotions. Neuroscientists call it the “executive brain”. They interpret our environment in a much higher quality – and decide whether the threat we feel is real.
Once our judge brain gives a feedback to our diva brain that an experience we fear is actually safe, it is known that the same extreme feeling of arousal in our body can then be read by the brain as a positive feeling of excitement. But most importantly, is how we analyze our fear: our judge brain learns what to choose to fear based on our personal experiences – or most often, the lack of them. To fill in the blanks in those cases new to us, our brain learns from what we register other people’s experiences to be, and imaginary experiences too. We can quite easily believe a fantasy story about what it is to jump the airplane for the first time, or to run a marathon, if we don’t have any tangible experience to guide us. Problem is, our imagination loves to run on extremes. Seeing a shark will be exhilarating and extremely terrifying.
As you are more likely to have a longer list of potential experiences that you have not yet done, then of experiences that you have already done, this means our judge brain is not so fit for deciding on a verdict for most of our fears. The diva, most of the time, wins.
When I planned for my sabbatical, I did not put much planning into it, except one thing: I would chose something that I really wanted to experience, but had extreme fear in doing: to explore the deep ocean.
I’ve decided to learn to dive and go straight to Advanced Level in Gili Islands. At my first open water dive, I was calm – I was breathing in absolute peace. This experience under water was of total quietness and meditation. For 45 minutes, there was only me, the instructor making sure things are ok, the soothing sound of water, and my controlled breathing. A massive turtle swam down my way. As I looked into its eyes, I couldn’t help but cry with joy behind my goggles. Like jumping for mushrooms in Mario Bros, I had acquired a new super power! There was a whole new unlocked level in my game.
As the beautiful quote from Joyce Meyer says, “courage is fear that has said its prayers and decided to go anyway”. This experience then gave me courage to jump in to many fears which were misguided by my amygdala: driving a scooter in crazy Bali, hiking up a volcano, traveling all over Sri Lanka in a tuk tuk. The latest one will start next week: I start my climb up the Annapurna, in Nepal.
Around Sri Lanka on my tuk tuk.
So I am fearless? I am not doing all these things because of my lack of fear, but because I question the reasons why I fear living certain experiences. Every time I feel fear, I don’t see it as the end of the line anymore. I ponder, talk to people who have done it, read a lot, check thought patterns. As I get more aware of my fears, I don’t let them define me, instead I let fear propel me forward.
As for me experiencing Sri Lanka after the attacks, this is a very scary and sad happening. Living this is a type of fear that came without much time to ponder, so it could be seen as a different case of fear. However, I also know a lot of the paranoia that my amygdala fires up is biased. The feeling of fear related to terrorist attacks is a flaw in human reasoning called the availability heuristic. The easier it is to think of something, the more likely you’ll think it is to happen… to you!
The many incredibly warm and open people I met on my time in Sri Lanka.
So my executive brain pondered again, and reflected that: 1. it is very likely that I am safer here than I would be in Brazil, where I am originally from and 2. these horrible people don’t define Sri Lanka, as I could experience myself getting to know so many amazing people around here. Therefore, I chose to enjoy all wonders this amazing country and its people have to offer, I will not let fear shut me down.
Maybe I cracked the theory that German guy was trying to explain to me. Maybe he didn’t mean he is “fearless”; perhaps he meant he was fearless of facing his fears. When we are not controlled by our fears, but use our fears to help us understand ourselves more, we can go past emotions, concentrate on what is meaningful to us and make choices that we believe to be important in our improvements and progression in life. This opens up an infinite world of new opportunities.
As I like to remember myself I only have this one life to live, I decide to chose not to let fear shut me down to any these amazing new experiences that this life experience can give me. What is the thing you’d like to do the most, but has a lot of fear doing it? Take your first step, go into that direction, and enjoy the thrill of a ride that only fear can take you to!
To the people from Sri Lanka, I leave a final note: be strong, be brave, and don’t let these awful attacks define you. You are a stunning country, you are beautiful, warm, and open people. My thoughts are with you. Don’t let fear win.
For those of you considering to go to Sri Lanka – please don’t change your plans! The country is not defined by these attacks, and the people here need tourism to survive and thrive. Don’t let them win!