For me, fear is an invisible emotional or mental “weakness” that I have historically refused myself permission to give in to.
My attitude has long been that it’s an effort of will: You can push through fear and pretend it’s not really there.
But I learned something recently that turned that line of thinking on its head.
Here is my story:
I have had a lifetime fear of heights, with many a social engagement marred by my acrophobia
It’s one reason why, for instance, I can barely watch a trailer for “The Walk” about Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, much less think about seeing the entire movie.
The very first Broadway play I saw was “Deathtrap” at the Music Box Theater in the late ’70s with my mom. I was very excited until we got there and I realized we had mezzanine seats.
I was OK when the lights went out and we could focus on the play but when the lights were back on and I could see where we were, well, to borrow a phrase from my younger son: I think I threw up a little in my mouth.
Same thing when I bought tickets for a Cirque du Soleil show at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. When we got there, I discovered the seats were so high and on such a steep pitch that I could not stay.
My wife and son watched the show as I climbed the stairs — almost on all fours — and waited in the hallway for the performance to finish.
So when my wife was planning a visit to Big Sur in California along the Pacific Coast Highway, she emphasized that she wanted me to be OK with the heights and narrow, curving roads.
I watched a YouTube video of a drive along the road and thought: “Yeah, I can handle this. I don’t want to be a party pooper on our trip and she is excited to show this to me.”
You can figure out the rest.
About an hour into the drive, we reached the serpentine cliffs. I was white-knuckled, my palms sweaty.
The low point came when we crossed the narrow Bixby Bridge, which seems to levitate over this canyon. I wanted to kiss the pavement when we made it to the other side.
I never relinquish the wheel because I am a lousy passenger — I get car sick easily.
So when we headed out for another two hours on these steep, cliffside roads, my wife knew I was in trouble when I abruptly pulled over and asked her to drive.
I could not go on. And here’s the thing: I did not stop being afraid just because I stopped driving.
I was curled up in the back seat, my face buried into my shoulder, one hand gripping the door handle until I had no feeling in my fingers and rhythmically praying.
I’ve long resisted limitations – either of my own doing or outside forces — being placed on my ability to get things done.
You’re talking about a guy whose signature phrase is “It’s fine” or “I’ll be fine” when confronted with an illness, a physical injury, lack of sleep or some kind of emotional hurt.
My act of bravery here was having the confidence to give into my fear instead of trying to pretend I could persevere.
What I learned was that it’s sometimes OK not to “man up” but to instead ask for help.
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