The Beginning of Wisdom

I watched in horror as my 11-year-old daughter Hannah plunged 150 feet down Cheakamus Canyon toward the river raging below.

My wife Karen and I had both tried to talk her out of it. But she wouldn’t be dissuaded.

She wanted to jump.

Of course, she was attached to a bungee cord, one that “exceeded Australian specifications” (whatever that means). And Whistler Bungee — an hour north of Vancouver and just below Whistler’s 2010 Olympic Village — has been in business for seven years with a perfect safety record.

Still … I got the willies just looking down through the 300-foot span as we crossed it. This was a murderous height. It would have taken at least three burly men to get me out on that platform.

“You don’t have any problem with this?” I asked a member of Canada’s Olympic ski team who was suiting up for a jump as we arrived.

“Not at all,” she laughed. “What could go wrong?”

“That’s the difference between you and me,” I said. “I have more imagination than that.”

Of course, I knew my fear was emotional not rational, otherwise I would never have let my daughter jump.

That she wanted to jump still astonishes me. After all, this is the same girl who insists on cracking her bedroom door at night so she can see the light in the hallway.

We hate to admit it but most of our fears are irrational. Everyday life just isn’t that dangerous anymore. Technology, engineering, and modern medicine have eliminated most of the sharp edges.

Yet we can’t escape our past. Our fears evolved as a basic survival mechanism. They arise in response to perceived threats, triggering a “fight or flight” response.

For most of us, it’s flight (or avoidance). And studies show our fears are fairly universal: spiders, snakes, heights (… yo!), public speaking, and death.

As Jerry Seinfeld once said, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Does that sound right? This means at a funeral most people would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Our greatest inhibitor, of course, is fear of failure.

Consciously or not, it can paralyze us, keeping us from applying for the promotion, taking the risk, meeting the girl, asking for the order, experiencing the unknown.

It’s always easier to stick with the safe, the comfortable, the familiar.

Yet every time we choose safety we reinforce fear. We nurture it. Only when we overcome this debilitating emotion do we really begin to live.

“He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson.

How is fear conquered? By doing what we think we can’t do, again and again.

When I was young, for example, public speaking made me nervous. Today, I relish the opportunity.

After a particularly turbulent flight 30 years ago, I was a white-knuckle flier. Now, I can’t keep track of all my frequent flier miles.

Fear is the great barrier to success. It gives small things big shadows. It is the inverse of faith, trapping us between regret for the past and anxiety about the future.

Yet few things warrant the fear we grant them. We run not from genuine threats but imaginary bogeymen.

Perhaps that’s why philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”

And the rewards are many. Waiting for you on the other side of fear is freedom. Freedom from anxiety. Freedom from regret. Freedom from a life unlived.

Fortune, it turns out, really does favor the brave.

As Marianne Williamson wrote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? … We are all meant to shine, as children do. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Does this mean — like Hannah — that I’m willing to embrace “Whistler’s Ultimate Adrenaline Rush” and plummet toward the Cheakamus River?

That depends. How many burly guys have you got?

[Ed. Note: Alex Green, author of The Secret of Shelter Island: Money and What Matters, is the editor of “Spiritual Wealth,” a free e-letter about the pursuit of the good life.]