Fear is something everyone on Earth has experience with; every person, big or small, young or old has had to cope with fear to one degree or another. From a librarian in Fargo to a cop in New York, each and every one of us has had to learn to deal with it in our own way. But why is it that some people seem to be able to handle fear so much better than others? Why are some of us capable of dealing with unimaginable levels of “freak the fuck out,” while others curl up and go fetal over the most insignificant things? Even more importantly, why can that ability to cope change?
The human body’s response to fear, anxiety and a fuckload of stress is exactly the same whether a threat is real or imagined. Fear is intended to help you fight off an adversary or run away from a dangerous situation. The biological and chemical mechanisms that govern our emergency responses go way back to primordial times and helped our ancestors deal with threats from all the different shit trying to eat them. Without these responses, our great greats would have been like cheesecake to a fat chick. These days the things that make your average person fearful and anxious are almost downright fucking ridiculous by comparison, but our bodies still deal with threats in the same way, and it’s our bodies release of the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline which regulates this red-alert system.
So how is it some of us have managed to push past something so substantial? One prevailing medical view is that the rush or “high” associated with hardcore extreme activity is not due to adrenaline and cortisol being released as a response to fear, but due to increased levels of dopamine, endorphins and serotonin because of the high level of physical exertion and stress. The idea being that those of us dubbed “extreme athletes” are able to bypass the “fight or flight” instinct because we’re stoned off our own happy juices. I for one, think that’s a complete load of crap.
Why? Well, on every one of my 9,000 or so jumps I’ve felt fear. On every rock climb I’ve ever made, I’ve felt fear. Every SCUBA dive I’ve made, either shark dive or just run of the mill, I’ve felt fear. If you read some of the medical papers on the subject, because of the things I do on such a regular basis, I am chemically inclined to not feel fear the way the average Joe or Jane will. The thing is, those doctors never asked me … I, like every other jumper I know, have felt everything from just a slight nervousness, to full-on freak-the-fuck-out more times than I can count. The difference, in my opinion, is our ability to feel that fear and either ignore it to some degree, or use is to fuel the fire. It’s our ability to take what, to others, can be overwhelming and debilitating, and step through that barrier to the other side. And to be honest, it insults my personal sensibilities to believe that it’s my body’s chemical response to fear and not my own mental control over them that allows me this freedom. It also hints that there people simply physically restricted from handling themselves in stressful situations, and I for one do not believe that.
As I see it, the most substantial difference between extreme-sports athletes and everybody else is that we don’t see fear as a barrier to participation. As a matter of fact, I believe it’s possibly the most vital component. Fear, and the proper use of it, is exactly what keeps us hyper aware and alive. So-called “fearless” people are the ones that are the real danger, not only to themselves, but to everyone around them. It’s that fuck stick with the “No Fear” T-shirt and the “I’m a badass” attitude that’s gonna be the first one to go, or worse, take someone else out, and it’s that person that’s gonna make me run.
“But wait,” you say, “you’re telling us fear is a GOOD thing?” and my answer is without a doubt “Yes!” Think about it. Put yourself back into one of those self-inflicted, scary as fuck situations. Your juices are pumping, your mind is racing with all the possibilities and outcomes, part of your head is screaming for you to get the fuck out of there and do ANYTHING other than what you are thinking. Then there’s this other part of you that is calm and collected, telling you to chill out, slow yourself down and face the situation. Something inside you makes the decision to stay the course, and then almost inexplicably, off you go! Now cut to “after” whatever it was that scared the hell out of you and assess how you feel.
Every single time that I’ve faced down a fear, I’ve felt all the better for it. Every time I dealt with a situation that scared me, and worked through that fear instead of letting it work me, I feel fucking amazing. It’s that triumph over fear that pushed me to enter into, and then stay in, our sport for so many years. It’s successful navigation of that fear and sometimes borderline terror to a positive outcome that makes you realize just who you really are, and what you are capable of doing! And therein is what I think gives people the ability to change from fear controlled to fear controller.
If you give the so-called “average” person just one chance to feel that substantial “holy shit” fear, control it just enough to push through, and find themselves successfully on the other side, you’ll find you have someone who has learned a huge and very positive lesson about themselves, and if they are anything like you and me, someone who wants to continue down that path. I mean, seriously, those of us who are members of what society deems “the lunatic fringe” know just how amazing it’s possible to feel after what most would consider a horrible day of fear and anxiety. For me, it’s simply the fact that everything else in my life just has the volume turned down afterward, and things that once seemed almost overwhelming become almost mundane by comparison.
I also firmly believe—after thousands of tandems—that women tend to be much better at handling and coping with high levels of fear than men are, and I’ll tell you why I believe this. Women by and large are raised in our society to believe that fear is a natural part of life. They, unlike men, are taught to feel and deal with all the different sensations that life throws at them, and as a result they tend to handle these changes much better, and with a hell of a lot more grace. Men on the other hand are taught almost from birth that fear is for pussies, emotions mean you’re a “fag,” and if you show anything appearing to be an actual feeling then you’ll be an outcast and a pariah not worthy of membership in the big boys’ club. The result in my opinion? When a man who has lived his entire life by this code is finally faced with real, “No shit there I was” fear, they melt the fuck down. It’s everything from a complete mental block with flailing limbs and bug eyes, to puking, passed out, complete physical shut-down, and it’s not a pretty sight.
I’ll never forget a Vegas tandem load with a couple making their first jump together. I was shooting video for the guy’s tandem first, with girlie right behind. Come jump run, the dude had a death grip on the pilot’s seat and was practically screaming that there was no freakin’ way he could go! I tell him I’m gonna go ahead and exit with his girl, and as she and her tandem instructor do the do-si-do to get her to the door, she punches her guy dead in the chest and yells, “Fucking PUSSY!” The poor guy rode the plane down in what had to be pain and anguish, and I fucking guarantee to this day he still looks back on that event with enormous regret! No doubt he not only missed out on the jump, but drunk crazy Vegas sex with the girlie too…
In the end, fear is, in my humble opinion, not only a daily part of our lives, but one of the most important, healthy and growth-inspiring things that human beings can experience. It is our very ability to feel, acknowledge and cope with these powerful events that separates us from the average beast, our ancestors and in many cases, ourselves. Embrace it. Savor your ability to deal with it in a positive way. Taste it in your very bones, and then get on with it! It’s an incredible way to KNOW you’re alive and calling the shots!
“No Fear?” No thanks.
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