Choosing Fear

By Lydia Cardinal

What makes this worthwhile? What makes the swims tolerable if not rewarding as a learning experience, what makes the humility, the vulnerability, the unknowable consequence worth swallowing?

I am learning how to kayak. For those of you that know me, this has been a long time coming. I have parents, friends, and a significant other who have all been kayaking for years, and I have had access to water and instruction as an employee at the U.S. National Whitewater Center for more than five years. I am not sure what took me so long to come around, but I often justified my disinterest in the sport because of my many years as a springboard and platform diver and the fear and battles I endured every time I stepped on to the pool deck. Frankly, I felt like I had paid my dues choosing fear for the sake of fun and I just didn’t feel like being scared anymore.

From my current vantage point, I can tell you that being resident shuttle bunny is not nearly as glamorous as it sounds. While I never, ever begrudged my paddling friends the necessary service of shuttle, my adventures as shuttle bunny have usually paled in comparison to a day on the river with friends. It may have been the afternoon I spent driving in and out of the New River Gorge multiple times (one windy road in, one windy road out) due to a missed turn, and subsequent missed hike… or it may have been the many views from the sideline, watching everyone have fun, and quietly wondering if I, too, had the nerve and the gusto to buck up and try something new. Oh, how quickly I had forgotten my days teetering over the edge of the 10 meter platform, willfully throwing myself off the block of concrete and into the heavily chlorinated water below! Not only had I forgotten how to be afraid, but I had forgotten how to embrace fear, name it, know it, and promptly kick it in the face to do what I intended to anyway.

I started out learning how to roll in the pool over the winter, and to be fair, I had a lot of experienced, knowledgeable, and patient eyes on me to walk me through it. I accredit my comfort upside and my willingness to take direction in a relatively benign environment to my years as a competitive diver with a coach, but I knew that whitewater would be a different animal entirely. I would have to be scared again.

The first day Chris took me out to the instructional channel at the Center I could feel my sea legs coming back. I was scared, yes, but of what? I don’t know. Failure? Embarrassment? I can’t be sure what flooded into my belly and lungs and through my veins, but I swallowed my nerves- and a bit of my pride- and sucked it up. I’m a half grown woman! I’ve traveled (parts) of the world by myself, I’ve hiked and camped alone and I’ve stood atop a 33 ½ cement block and hurled myself into the pool below on purpose… surely, I could handle the instructional channel.

One of the most dangerous points in my career as an athlete was when I learned to say “No.” It is a powerful word, a declaration of autonomy; it also marked the moment when I think, retrospectively, I started to loose passion in the fear filled sport I had pursued for many years. For me, the fear wasn’t worth it anymore. I was too scared, too tired of being scared, too unwilling to muster up the mental, emotional, and physical fortitude it would take to overcome it. When I figured out I could say no, that I could actually defy instructions and directions from a person who sought to push me, better me, teach me… I buried progress permanently. I do not mean to say- and read carefully- that there is not a time and a place to recognize limits and gracefully bow out from situations above one’s own means; no, that is precisely the time and place to exercise your right to recognize your ability. But then- as with now- I was rarely in a situation in which my skills and knowledge would not be enough. I simply did not wish to choose fear over comfort, and I stopped progressing.

I had a moment on the river that first day with Chris where he asked me to ferry across the current into an eddy where, I believed, if I missed it or messed it up, I would go down a part of the channel I felt I wasn’t ready for, a part of the channel that, at that time, scared me. My initial, knee jerk reaction was a scoffing, “I’m not doing that.” Plain and simple: immediate, impulsive rejection as an immediate, impulsive reaction to fear. I had a moment, sitting in the eddy that first day with Chris when he asked me to ferry across the current. I knew, right then and there, that if I said no to this simple, reasonable request, I would always say no; it would be fatal. I would set a precedent of nay saying, of defiance and unwillingness. If I cashed in on my ever so valuable ability to say no on that very first day with that very first challenge, I would scarcely be able to find myself saying yes with any ease in the future.

In that moment, it was my own personal decision to choose fear, in healthy doses, and to do so often. I realized then that if I was going to do this, this kayaking thing, then I didn’t want to hide from scary bits: flipping, rolling, surfing, jumping into holes, and yes, sometimes swimming. I didn’t want to fear the unknown; I wanted to hit the fear head on, know what I was dealing with, and not skirt the scary parts I would inevitably encounter sooner or later anyway.

Fear is not easy to swallow as a beginner, and I think it gets more manageable but not less present with time and experience. You figure out why and how you’re afraid, if it’s just nerves or if you are legitimately questioning your ability to complete a task. What I am learning now, in the early stages of paddling, is that choosing fear is rewarding. The other day, I paddled up into a hole to try surfing across it. I still had that initial, knee jerk reaction of “Hell no!” when it was suggested to me, but I recognized that for myself, that is a red flag that I am opposing something for the sole reason of the presence of fear and discomfort. And yeah, for a little while, the new surfing trick was really fun and I was having a great time… and then I flipped and missed some roll attempts, and ended up swimming. And that part was scary, and it wasn’t fun.

If I have learned anything so far, it has been how to accept fear and embrace it, and understand what shapes it takes, what it feels like, and when it’s worth it. For me, it has been worth it most of the time when it comes to trying something new on the river. My anxiety is healthy and conquering it is empowering. I make the choice.

Fear, for me, is either in my control or out of it. I am in control of fear and anxiety when I decide to try something new. I am out of control when something unexpected happens, when I didn’t plan on fear entering the equation and suddenly it’s there- say, that day I got pinned backwards on some rocks right above a new drop or that time I swam and was heading downstream, knowing exactly what was ahead. My fear then takes a different shape and suddenly, it has to go somewhere else because those butterflies I had before I tried that new thing? Those were mine, and I controlled them. When I’m out of my boat or I’m in a precarious situation, the fear owns me and I am small and at it’s mercy… or at least that’s the way it feels. In two separate occasions I have learned that when fear is manifested out of a lack of control, I have to project it somewhere. Suddenly, it’s not this abstract feeling that I can write an inspiriting article detailing the benefits of overcoming it; no, it is cold and paralyzing and needs a home.

In both of those instances I got mad- really mad- at the people who were trying to help me. I was scared: I had chosen fear in the name of fun and challenge and it bit me in the ass. I had to blame someone! Who? Whose fault was it? It wasn’t mine; I certainly didn’t ask for this. Stress, fear, frustration and yeah, a little- and maybe a lot- of embarrassment gets misplaced and projected onto others as I struggle to understand why I feel the way I do, why I feel so betrayed.

Fear is a fickle beast; sometimes it is pure and honest and exists to sound the alarm- you’re NOT ready to do this, this ISN’T a good idea- but sometimes fear exists because of a lack of control. For me, a new boater, that control is what I give up when I peel out of an eddy and into the current; it is also the control that I lose when my preparedness fizzles out and all the scenarios I played out in my mind dissolve as a new one emerges- the unexpected.

This isn’t new, right? So we fear the unexpected, big deal. As a kid, I was scared to look under my bed in the dark because I couldn’t be sure what was under there. As an adult, I fret over the future because I cannot be certain what shape it will take. But the trick here, with kayaking- or any sport where fear and risk are a part of the experience-, is that I am making a conscious choice to enter on to the river with a healthy dose of fear. I make the choice to try the new rapid or the new ferry despite the swarm of butterflies that feel more like tornadoes restless and at home in my chest. I know the fear is there, and I choose to proceed anyway. And what I’m learning here, in the raw and vulnerable phases of being new, is that I am and will always be raw and vulnerable in the face of fear, and that fear I think I control by deciding to proceed despite its presence, is always there, always with me, even when I cannot act in spite of it preemptively.

What makes this worthwhile? What makes the swims tolerable if not rewarding as a learning experience, what makes the humility, the vulnerability, the unknowable consequence worth swallowing?

I am on a wave, small, but smooth and glassy. The river could do with me as she pleases but for now, she tolerates me long enough to show me her soft side, how receiving she can be, how much she wishes that I know her well. We slide back and forth for a moment, perfectly together, as my heart soars in to my mouth, my eyes widen into saucers, and my lips split open into a grin. She lets me solve this piece of the puzzle but for a moment before she spits me out, flips me over, and begs me to try again.