“Fear is only as deep as the mind allows” (Japanese Proverb)

As a 10-year-old, I was awestruck by the new “skyscraper” that had been built in our small town of Corner Brook. Not having travelled outside of Newfoundland, I had nothing to compare it against. I was convinced it must have been one of the tallest buildings ever built. So, it was with great excitement that my friends and I decided to go across town and secretly climb its 12 stories to catch a glimpse of the world below. But as I reached the top and looked out the stairway window, something very strange happened. As I stared at the ground below, my whole being shivered. I had never been so high up before, and an unexpected new and paralyzing fear engulfed me. It was this fear of heights that resulted in so many lost opportunities.

Like in many small towns, our hub of activity was the community centre. Ours contained an ice rink for hockey and skating, a gymnasium, a library and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The pool also had three diving platforms, the highest being what separated the advanced from the beginners. I had no fear climbing the highest vertical ladder, walking onto the platform, taking a run and a jump and performing a nice dive into the water below. But this one time, after the experience at the building, I slowly walked onto the diving platform, carefully made my way to the end, and just stood there, unable to execute a dive that I had performed well so many times before.

Standing at the edge of the diving platform, looking down at the pool below, I remembered the many times I had successfully dived here, and not just from a standing position but with a run and jump. Why couldn’t I do it again? Why was I now so afraid? I was convinced that I couldn’t do it, certain something was going to go wrong, and so I simply jumped off the platform’s edge into the water. Fear had become my master!

Many years later, while vacationing at the cottage, friends suggested that we all go over to the other side of the lake and do some cliff jumping. I was as eager as they were. Dean, Bruce and I climbed to the highest spot. With ease, they ran and jumped into the lake. I simply stood there. I said, “I can’t.” “Merv, what are you afraid of?” they asked. I gave a confident response: “Nothing.” But I was reminded of the 12-storey climb, the pool experience and how terrified I was. So many years later, that same feeling had embraced me again. I climbed down and found a ledge not more than 10 feet high and jumped in. Yes, I was embarrassed, but at least I was “safe.”

But the question, “What are you afraid of?” stayed with me.

Now in my mid-50s, I have had my share of life’s challenges and fears: loss of employment, poor health, financial demands, friends moving away, kids in car accidents and travelling to strange places alone, parents dying, stressed family relationships, high expectations at work and an uncertain retirement. They are common to us all. However, I’ve learned that while life certainly does present us with challenges and fears, regardless of the path I have to walk, I should never be afraid. 

So how do we overcome fear? Fear is simply a lack of confidence in ourselves, in other people or in uncertainties in a situation. 

Here is what we can do when confronted with a choice between playing it safe or leaping off the cliff or diving off the high platform into the unknown (adapted from Tina Su’s blog Think Simple Now):

1. Perceive reality accurately

The best thing to do when confronted with a fear is to view the situation with objectivity and an open mind. Be honest with yourself, too. When you put your emotions aside and can see a situation independent of what you may think about it, you can cut through any delusion and assess the situation accurately.

2. Believe in yourself

The interesting thing about overcoming a fear is that you need to believe that you can deal with the situation. Now, the thing about believing in yourself is that you must have an accurate perception of yourself. It is easier to take a risk or deal with a fear when you believe that you can achieve what you are afraid of.

3. Surrender the outcome

What usually prevents people from taking a risk is the fact that the outcome is not guaranteed. None of us are able to predict exactly what the future will bring. Therein lies the beauty of life. That means that you give your best to the present moment and trust that it will lead you where you want to be. Life has an interesting way of working things out. Your job is to know what it is that you want or need. A small acorn eventually becomes a huge oak tree; it does that without any help from us. The same holds true for you. Plant the seeds, water them and do whatever else you need to do, but let things develop in their own way and time.

So, if you are bound by fear, based on my experience, I can truly say, do not be afraid. Life is full of uncertainty. We need to face tomorrow with a strong faith and trust in ourselves, others and outcomes. 

Remember these words by American science-fiction writer Frank Herbert from his sci-fi classic Dune:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.