‘Fraidy Cat

There they go calling me brave again. This time, it’s my current host dad. The tallest Italian I’ve ever seen in my life is staring across the dinner table at me, having poured me another glass of wine, and saying, “I think it must take somebody pretty brave to do what you’re doing”. I blush, and stammer, and try to come up with something (in acceptably simple English) to explain myself. I fail miserably, as I generally do, when somebody puts me on the spot and makes me talk about myself. Don’t get me wrong, I like to talk about myself as much as the next person, it’s the being put on the spot that gets me. I’m not a fan of trying to distil thoughts I’ve been mulling over in my head for weeks, months, or years, into sound bytes at the drop of a hat.
So I dodged. I explained that growing up, I was by not by any stretch of the imagination the brave one. That’s my sisters. The ones who actually enjoy those drop-zone carnival rides. In fairness, I don’t know for sure I don’t enjoy them, since I have always flat-out refused to ride them.

I couldn’t count my childhood fears on two hands. Darkness, dogs, heights, water, being alone, other people, tall grass, loud noises, fireworks, roller coasters, boats, beaches, woods, flying bugs, crawling bugs, spiders, snakes, flying, falling, spicy food, mice, the list goes on. I was definitely not the brave one. I was the one who got teased by her friends, siblings, and occasionally parents about various fears.

I was that kid who would run screaming into another room if I spotted a spider in the corner. Less than a year ago, in my first-ever all-on-my-own apartment (when I had roommates, I could always convince one of them to deal with the creepy-crawlies) I jumped about a mile in the air and shrieked like a little girl when I spotted a centipede. Then I killed it. I set and baited mousetraps, although thankfully the mice took off on their own, and I didn’t have to face an actually caught mouse.

I don’t think of myself as brave because it doesn’t generally occur to me that doing the things I do takes bravery. Even though sometimes they do. I can probably thank my parents (swimming lessons for a child who is petrified of water, sign me up!) for my general attitude that the fact I’m afraid to do something is absolutely no excuse for not doing it. I do have faltering moments. The night before leaving on my 3 week solo backpacking trip, I stood in my living room, nearly in tears, and told my roommate that I didn’t think I could do it, I should probably cancel the whole thing. I believe my exact words were, “I don’t think I’ve got the guts to do this”.

She, to her credit, didn’t actually laugh out loud, only snickered a little as she said “Of course you do.” One point for the roommate with more confidence in me than I’ve got in myself, because I did do it, and I was so glad I had.

Just over a year later, the same friend, though no longer my roommate, and I were standing at the top of a cliff. I was wearing a climbing harness, clipped to a zipline. Oh no, not just any zipline, the UK’s highest, longest, fastest zipline. I was shaking so much I could barely stand up. Once again, I looked at her, nearly in tears, and said “I don’t think I can do this”.

This time, she flat out told me to stop being ridiculous.

Let’s just recap for a moment the number of fears this particular feat combined: heights, water, flying, being strapped into a climbing harness, falling, and so on.

The great thing about this zipline for people who are so scared they can hardly stand up is that once you’re standing on the platform, the path of least resistance is to just go. It doesn’t take any effort, because (if you’re as scared as I was) you’re gripping the door-frame-like piece of wood next to you with everything you’ve got, and all the rest of your energy is being used trying to keep your tiptoes in contact with the platform below you. The harness you’re buckled into is hoisting you up towards the line over your head, and it looks like you have to step or jump off the platform into a drop that ends in a bunch of very pointy trees, and then a lake. You don’t have to jump or step at all. As long as you let go of the door frame and lift up your feet, gravity does it for you. One minute I was trembling on a big wooden platform at the edge of a quarry, and in the next breath I heard my friend telling me not to be ridiculous. I didn’t step, I didn’t jump, I just picked up my feet and started screaming.

It was amazing. I guess that makes two points for the friend with more confidence in me than I have.

Not all the scary things I do have happy endings. My first experience of sleep away summer camp at age 15 jumps to mind. For someone who’s afraid of heights, water, speaking other languages, not to mention large groups of boisterous children and teenagers, two weeks of canoeing, rock climbing, and camp songs entirely in French is not a fantastic plan. That was one of those scary things that seemed like it should cause me to conquer my fears of one, or maybe even all of those things. Not so much. Instead I spent two weeks in a constant state of confusion, and came rather closer than I would’ve liked to getting scurvy. I lost any fear of vegetables I may have had before that camp, since for the two weeks the choices were carrot sticks or apples, neither of which, being the goody two shoes bracefaced teenager I was, I was allowed to eat.

Maybe there’s something to that saying that courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the judgement that something else is more important than the fear, or that bravery is being afraid and doing it anyways. I suppose it doesn’t take any bravery to do things you’re not afraid of. So maybe, just maybe, I am brave after all.

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