We all know the end of this quote. In fact, I've always wondered where FDR nicked it for his auspicious first inaugural speech- assuming it was not just penned by one of his anonymous and very gifted speech writers. The thing is, as I've been thinking quite a bit about fear for well over the past year- the year 2012 of the Anxiety Attack you might recall if you're a regular reader- I've internally heard this particular set of words quite a bit. As I've been struggling WITH my fear and working THROUGH my fear and when occasionally not feeling fearful, thinking ABOUT my fear, this particular quote keeps nipping at my heels. You know, like that Carpenters song you heard in the grocery store two days ago that you can't get out of your head no matter how many Fugazi records you spin...
And I hear it in the pitch perfect upper-class East-coast, slightly warbling tone in which Roosevelt presented it to America. You can hear him raising his voice to emphasize the immediacy of the point as the phrase moves to its inevitable conclusion. You can hear the pregnancy within the slight pause in between "...to fear..." and "...is fear itself!" (more like "feah" in my mental soundtrack.) It's a little brain squib that won't unglue itself from either my frontal cerebral cortex where all the analysis occurs, nor apparently my almond-shaped amygdala, where all the effects of said fear generate and multiply. It is a deeply ingrained memory.
So why is it that only until really this year, perhaps after so much time hanging around with my fear do I think I finally understand this quote? Well, until recently, I believe the way I interpreted, or rather misinterpreted, this fundamental pillar of my psyche is that because the only thing we have to fear is fear itself-- there's really nothing to be afraid of! It's all smoke and mirrors, like a gamey burlesque show or an expensive trip through one of Universal Studios rides. Once you realize that, people, ask not what your country can do for you, right JFK? (Yeah yeah, so I'm marrying two inaugural speeches. Get over it.) Because when you've CONQUERED your fear- you have NOTHING to be afraid of and you are therefore and thusly a bad ass motherfucker who should really start being in charge of a lot of senatorial committees or maybe run the CIA or become a decorated Navy Seal. What can you do for your country now that you realize there's nothing to fear at all??
So- ok. I was wrong. I was very very wrong. Because there IS something to be afraid of.
And it's not death, though it seems like it would be. Death is potentially really scary because it's unknown, and so final, and separates you from all the good things you do know about, and all the people you love. BUT--once you're dead, you're dead. It's done. ALL the lights are out, including the fear light and loss light, and grief light, and all other horrid negative emotions and feeling states that we'd all rather run from.
So, no, it's not actually death itself I find I'm afraid of. But yet- there IS still something to fear. There's not NOTHING to fear. The thing to fear is encapsulated in all those icky feelings surrounding the notion of death. The fear that perhaps I'm going to die right now. It's all the shaky terror and nauseating dizziness and overwhelming grief of impending separation from those I love so deeply and regret at not being nearly done experiencing all this plane of existence has to offer-- those feelings I am still afraid of. And those feelings are what again? What Bag can I wrap up those feelings into and call it a day? The "FEAR" bag. Yes- that's fear. That's what it feels like, and that's what I'm afraid of.
Oh wait-- So all I'm really afraid of is feeling afraid. A HA! NOW I get it. The only thing we have to fear, turns out, IS fear itself! Yes! OH yeah.....wait. That one thing? That "fear" thing? Well, yeah-- I'm still very much afraid of that. No Navy Seal enlistment for me.
I had the extreme good fortune to attend a dinner the other night at a dear friend's home who happens to be my husband's co-exec-producer on a TV pilot he is developing. The show will be called "Everest" and will be about-- well- I'm sure you can guess. The dinner was set up by the neighbor of our hostess who happens to be a mountaineer, and who knows quite a few members of that elite group of humans who choose to continually do crazy things like scale the world's tallest mountains with or without supplemental oxygen at hand, and/or dangle themselves off rock faces at 5000 feet...things like that. He wanted to present some of these friends to my husband to give Jeff and his other exec producers some glimpses into that life for real.
They were all very impressive- all five climbers he introduced us to. One of whom is named John Long (my father's name-- oddly enough) and who is one of the early frontrunners in extreme sports. John was hanging off cliff edges and scaling vertical Yosemite mountain sides when most of us were in diapers. At the dinner John was - incidentally - hobbling around on crutches, though ironically so. In over 45 years of climbing, this was the first time he had ever broken a bone, and it had been at Rockreation- a very layman westside indoor climbing gym if you don't know- A location that Jeff and our 8 year old son used to regularly visit. The climbing wall is no higher than 28 feet. But isn't that just how the world turns? John, who has regularly taken tea in the clouds with angels from his dizzyingly high gymnastic vantage points, visits this place where even I've been on occasion for the odd kid birthday party. He visits on a plea from a friend at the last minute. It's late evening after a long day of editing, he's tired and not thinking, forgets his focus, mis-ties a knot or oversteps a fake rock jutting from the polymide vertical face and lands standing straight up, a mere 25 feet below where he slipped only to find his lower leg snapped in two- enough to show bone jutting out directly above and to the right of his ankle. Whomever is in charge up there in the heavenly skies must be having quite a laugh.
(By the by- all the climbers at the dinner had also not just endured many horrid injuries, but had harrowing death stories to relate. Witnessing their climbing partners - a sister-in-law, or girlfriend, or childhood best friend - plummet to their deaths right past their noses- WHOOSH---dropping 500- 1000- 5000 feet to the craggy rocks below. And at all times, these people were expert climbers who were just so oxygen deprived, they were making simple errors- beginner mistakes like not tying the right knot, or misjudging a foot fall, simply because there was not enough O2 in the air to get that synapse fired fast enough before gravity took over. Even the mightiest fall...and fall and fall....)
So speaking of the mightiest- another of these climbers at the mixer was an alpinist named Don Bowie, and he's the one I want to focus on here, because he and his stories so beautifully encapsulate for me this growing awareness I am unwittingly cultivating with my own fear, one sweaty, white-knuckled 3am moment at a time.
Don Bowie is my age- only a year older at 43, sporting a taut, tall though not towering physique that seems to be made entirely of bone and sinew. Even his sculpted face is interesting to watch as he speaks directly to you in his soft-spoken, methodical manner. It moves like a face should- lean and mechanical. You look at Don and you see a fairly pure example of the human machine that those who believe in God must believe God meant to create. Like those long distance runners in Kenya-- they to me are another God- intended prototype. If Don Bowie were the every day sort of Subaru wagon, the Ford hybrid mini-SUV in God's Garage of Humans, Duncan Kibet or Catherine Ndereba would probably be the Ferraris...
But anyway- back to Bowie. He as a mountain climber - as an alpinist and a purist who does not use any supplemental oxygen whatsoever - is one of the best in the world. There are only a few creatures on this earth like Don who are capable of doing what he can do- trips up and down Everest (which he's done numerous times from different vantage points,) trips up and down K2, which though less commericalized, Bowie says is MUCH more treacherous, trips up and down all the world's tallest mountains WITH NO SUPPLEMENTAL OXYGEN. Trips not mapped and taken over the course of weeks, but carefully plotted summits done in the course of 24-48 hours round trip. He's like the sprinter up and down the mountain. With NO O2. And he has sadly outlasted a number of his counterparts and has been with a small number of them on the mountain the day they took that unfortunate misstep, or made that brief fatal error in judgement that Don and all others say only takes a split-second. (It's chilling to hear. You're there one second, talking and breathing and laughing in a humdrum moment, though sluggishly, for sure, and then the next you're just gone. It's all over for you.) He has many sickening stories about watching his dear friends fall, knowing there's nothing he can do for them. Knowing he won't even have the strength to go find them or pull them out of the ice they will be embedded in later because every second you are on the mountain over 6000 feet, you are in the process of dying yourself, in-taking not even half of the oxygen you need to survive with each harrowing awful minute.
And I cannot underline the word AWFUL enough. Because Bowie did. Don made it very clear, that doing what he does has nothing to do with elation, or FUN, or even testosterone-driven maniacal will. He says it's really just a constant relationship- a dance- with his own fear. This seems to be what drives, fuels, and houses his reason for existence up there in the air. Because it does not sound cool at all- this climbing tall mountains. It sounds beyond cold, and windy, and slippery, and sickening, and disorienting, and desolate, and back-breaking, and disappointing, and depression-producing..this mountain climbing thing sounds seriously for the birds. Well, the goats I suppose. It does not sound like we humans are supposed to be doing this at all.
And yet Don Bowie and certain other extreme outliers do this. And keep doing it. And the ones that do it and survive, mostly do so not because they make lots of money from it (though some do, from guiding expeditions, and from taking on sponsorships....two things Don Bowie has never done.) The ones who do it over and over again seem to need to do it, because they need to be in relationship to their fear in that way. It is so palpable and powerful and pervasive, that the mountain is the only way they can bring it to life, and play chess with it.
Bowie says that once he gets to a certain point summiting, his body feels so awful every second of the way, it's like he's dying of the worst flu out there (something I can relate to in an achingly acute way with my endocarditis memories. But of course I was lying prone in a hospital bed, warm and cared for, in those moments of weakness, fear and despair-- ) Don is out in the harshest element Earth has to offer save perhaps the deep heart of a volcano. He is actually trying to keep moving, despite every synapse in his brain which fires "TURN AROUND! GO BACK DOWN!" He must force his body at every second to keep going forward. And to stay alert and awake, and strong, and agile- no matter how slowly he's doing it. He must allow for and quiet the crazy thoughts that come into his head at such high altitudes- mangled ideas that creep in like drug demons telling him things that aren't true, giving him bad advice to, say, take off all his clothing, or dump out the remaining water he so painstakingly took all day yesterday melting ice to make. Or maybe just to jump off the ridge he has been desperately clinging to for 6 hours through the current storm.
I cannot tell you how deeply I never ever want to go extreme mountain climbing after talking with this man. Not that it was ever a dream of mine, really, but I now know for CERTAIN that the idea holds NO romance at all for me. It sounds like pure hell. The kind of pure hell I'm trying to escape at 3am shuddering through a panic attack on my bathroom floor.
There are two glaring differences between my experience and Don's. The first of which is that I did not choose to bring it on and Bowie did. But secondly, and more saliently to me, for Don Bowie up there on K2 or wherever he might plant himself, the elements provide an actual harsh reality of imminent death. Death is hanging out for real on his shoulder. It's right there going- "Now, Don? What do you think? Wanna try it on for size?" Whereas, my death fears are manufactured and surreal, which is part of what makes my anxiety attacks so discombobulating. To withstand that deep of a fearful experience on the inside when what's occurring outside of you seems to hold no shred of danger....it's a freaky schism.
In any event. I'm so grateful to have been able to walk with giants the other day. To rub elbows with TRUE rocks stars- true outliers and frontrunners. I told a pal of mine yesterday it was like meeting yoda for real. These Zen masters not conquering their fear so much as developing a neighborhood friendship with it. Inviting it over to play again and again....
And this is perhaps the best takeaway of all. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. So why not cozy up and invite it in? It's right outside your door anyway...
Yoda: I am wondering, why are you here? Luke: I'm looking for someone. Yoda: Looking? Found someone, you have, I would say, hmmm? Luke: Right... Yoda: Help you I can. Yes, mmmm. Luke: I don't think so. I'm looking for a great warrior. Yoda: Ohhh. Great warrior. [laughs and shakes his head] Yoda: Wars not make one great.
(But maybe Fear does.)