On Fear

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Johna and her Nemesis, the Staten Island Ferry

Fear is a funny thing.

On the one hand, it can be a powerful protective and energizing force. In fact, one of my favorite quotes is:  “Fear is the energy to do your best.” I welcome fear when it inspires me to do more than I thought I could.

On the other hand, fear can hold you back.

One of my friends recently acknowledged her fear of making some major changes in her life. She asked, “Can I really reinvent myself and my life again? At my age?”

She’s neither excessively young nor especially old—but it’s not age that’s relevant here. It’s her fear, and the way it led her to doubt the possibility of a positive outcome.

It’s extremely easy to let yourself be guided by your fears, particularly when they seem rational. Really awful things do happen to people—more often than we want to think about.

And if you, like many of us, are the possessor of an unusually vivid imagination, it’s easy to fall into the trap of imagining what you’re afraid of in excruciating, three-dimensional detail.

Observing the Staten Island Ferry from a safe distance

For example, I’m afraid of the Staten Island Ferry. Not in the sense of having a phobia of large orange vessels, but whenever I’m crossing in my kayak from the Battery to Governor’s Island, I imagine what might happen in a collision: The darkness of the ship bearing down, the shock of cold water, being unable to breathe, the feeling of the motors slicing into limbs…

Something like this (which actually happened):

(hat tip to The Old Salt Blog)

When I watch that video, I imagine what it must have felt like to be on that disabled boat, watching the barge loom closer and closer, finally realizing it was going to hit, screaming and jumping into the water…

So obviously mine isn’t an entirely irrational fear.

Ships do hit people. I once knew a man who’d broken almost every bone in his body when a speedboat slammed into his canoe. One arm was permanently several inches shorter than the other.

That said, I try hard to mitigate the risk. I carry a radio and listen to the Staten Island Ferry announce when it will be leaving. If necessary, I can use the radio to let the ferry know I’m there. Vlad and I discuss the details of every ferry trajectory prior to a crossing to minimize the chance of a collision. And so on.

But what I also do—and shouldn’t—is keep imagining the collision and its consequences. As I watch the ferry bear down, my heart rate goes up, my hands sweat, I get jumpy. And sometimes it messes with my decision-making. Instead of proceeding methodically on a consistent course (which is usually the safest thing to do), I might freeze, or change directions—thereby increasing my risk of getting hit.

And that’s my point, I guess. Fear is a good thing, if it inspires you to take appropriate precautions (and yes, do your best).

But there’s a hidden danger in listening too closely to your fears.

It’s a mistake to imagine yourself so vividly into a situation that it clouds your judgment, and paradoxically increases the risks of something going wrong.

Many of us do that, at some point. Sometimes the line between healthy and dangerous fear is a fine one.

I’m learning to listen to myself, and pay attention to the times when imagination gets in the way, instead of helping. And when a vivid image of catastrophe comes to mind, I try to look at it objectively: Is it a risk I’m aware of? Have I taken all appropriate precautions? Have I done everything I can think of to mitigate the risk?

If the answer is “yes”… then I gently but firmly push the catastrophic image out of my mind and deliberately replace it with an equally vivid image of the challenge being successfully surmounted.

All clear to cross

So when the Staten Island Ferry looms up ahead… Vlad and I look at each other, and we nod, and we start paddling. And I hold firmly to the vision of making it across safely, with no fuss.

Guess what? It works.

Another crossing safely accomplished!

And my friend? Her life is going well, too. In fact, it’s going wonderfully… just as she’s imagined it!

(Note: I can’t find the source of the “fear is the energy to do your best” quote—none of the Internet sources seem right—but while poking around I did manage to find this site, which has some good quotes on fear. Enjoy!)

12 responses to “On Fear

  1. great message, thanks MJ

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  2. “And if you, like many of us, are the possessor of an unusually vivid imagination, it’s easy to fall into the trap of imagining what you’re afraid of” Truer words were never written, Johna! Acting in spite of fear – well, that’s courage. Thanks for a great post!

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks, composer! You know, it’s interesting… one of the things you learn in paddling is that often to avoid an obstacle, you actually have to look AWAY from it (that gets your body rotated in the right position to paddle out of the path).

      It’s amazing how difficult that is to do–something in you wants to keep staring at the buoy (or piling, or pier) while you paddle inexorably towards it.

      You have to discipline yourself to set up the turn, look away in order to MAKE the turn… and then trust that the turn will hold and you’ll avoid the obstacle.

      Interesting metaphysical implications… :-)

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  3. Great advice. I have fears that sometimes stop me doing adventurous things but also work hard to overcome them

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      Hi Andrew,

      Thanks! The thing to remember is that fear is not your enemy–and being afraid isn’t the problem.

      You can’t make fear go away, you can just decide whether to feed it, ignore it, or listen to it.

      The two best answers are to listen to it (if it’s telling you something important) or ignore it (if you’ve taken all necessary precautions). Feeding it is a waste of energy, and can be dangerous…

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  5. ‘Visualization’ can be very powerful and effective, and yes it does work. It’s nice to hear it works for you. I’ve been told of studies supporting it’s effectiveness. I relate to the experience of making major life changes – multiple times.

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      Hi Fergiemoto,

      I hear you! It does work–both ways. Visualize the bad stuff and it’s more likely to happen to you. And visualize the good stuff… ditto.

      As for major life changes… my friend is very good at them. She just had one of those moments where you think, “Can I really do this? AGAIN?” The unknown is always scary… but why feed the fear once you’ve acknowledged it?

      I hope your changes have been, as hers, an evolution towards the light…

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