Fear can be an ally in facing change and charting new paths

The past few months have been a time of transition and change, and not just in my own life.

Friends have contemplated big decisions and made even bigger leaps. There have been moves to new cities, career retoolings and departures to embark upon new paths entirely. Sometimes, the itch to redefine one’s circumstances or sense of self feels almost pervasive given all the conversations I’ve been having with those craving or creating a shift.

Last week, as I talked to a dear friend who is bringing several long-harbored dreams to fruition, she commented on the doubt that has been accompanying her. Even with her excitement over all that has been steering her, often with uncanny timing, toward building her own travel business, there have been moments where she’s questioned her sanity for entertaining so many bold ideas. With fear a surreptitious presence, trusting she’s heading in the right direction isn’t always easy.

Yet I believe our greatest acts of daring are always accompanied by a trace, and sometimes a roaring dose, of fear. If we think about the things we want most for our lives, whether personally or professionally, they usually involve some risk. To go after the ideal job or career opportunity, we must be willing to stretch and challenge ourselves beyond the confines of comfortable capability. To know deep, abiding love, we must choose to be vulnerable, to cast our hearts fully into a space that holds as much potential for loss as it does transforming joy. And to chase the dream that relentlessly beckons, the one that seems fashioned from some mysterious but undeniable essence of who we are, we must wrestle every voice that booms of impossibility or futility. We must leave the ledge of longing to birth the bigger and brighter we envision.

But that doesn’t mean we also abandon our fear, for it can be a plucky instigator in the guise of a saboteur. Sometimes, its ripple is the marker pointing us in a worthwhile direction; it can motivate us to pursue our dreams when living with regret is an option too painful to consider. On the other side of our greatest moments and accomplishments, we may find fear played no small role in getting us where we are.

I’ve written before of my trip to Peru several years ago and my climb to the summit of Machu Picchu mountain, which towered more than 2,000 feet above the ancient Incan city. I often look back on that entire trip as an exercise in learning trust and releasing fear. It was my first international travel experience, and I chose to do it, not with family or friends, but a small group of strangers, knowing for two weeks I’d be rooming with someone I’d never met. The tour was billed as a sacred pilgrimage yet I had no expectations for revelation or transformation. I’d simply made an impulsive decision to go late one night while idling at my computer.

But the deeper I ventured into Peru, the less random my choice of destination seemed. I experienced exhilarating joys, and laughed my way through much of the journey with an amazing roommate, but I was also repeatedly pressed against discomfort — and no more so than the day I learned we’d be scaling Machu Picchu.

Everything in me quaked at the prospect. I was terrified of the rigorous climb, of the path we were told wound craggily over precipitous drops to a river below, where one misstep could end in a fatal pitch. I was afraid I wouldn’t make it, that my legs or heart or pretense at grit would desert me halfway through, leaving me stranded with no stamina to continue upward or make my way back down.

Two in our group declined the excursion, and I could have, as well. Yet something, perhaps that very thing that had impelled me to travel to Peru in the first place, boldly urged me on. And to this day, I marvel at how liberating it felt to charge ahead like I did, thrusting myself into breathtaking beauty and daunting challenge as I made the arduous trek. Even more surprising was the awareness I was being supported and protected with every single step.

By the time I stood atop the mountain — a staggering 10,177 feet above sea level — I felt like a different woman. My legs were aching and I was hot and tired, but I felt triumphant and powerful and deeply grateful for my perch amid the clouds. I still had the return leg to face, but I couldn’t get over how there had never been a moment when I didn’t trust in my own security. That a butterfly, long the symbol of transformation in certain mystical traditions — and a creature for which I’d always had an affinity — had alighted on my arm during the climb seemed to affirm the experience was a potent lesson in letting go of fear.

Or at least that’s what I thought and how, over the years, I’ve always recounted that tale. It’s only recently I realized my anxiety and reservations didn’t magically dissipate as I made my ascent. Instead, my fear had been with me all along. I simply chose to embrace it, and when facing or negotiating big life changes, that can make all the difference. My moment of bravery came when I acknowledged how scared I was to scale that mountain — and chose to do it anyway.

My fear became an ally. Once I acknowledged it and committed to my adventure, I had no choice but to trust the path ahead. So it is with those wild dreams and giant goals in life. We may initially balk in the face of our own audacity. But then we leap, the very act calling up a faith and certitude that can carry us beyond our fear and onto new footpaths that will enrich the map of our lives.

– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times


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