A Better Way to Be Afraid (Or Mars in Retrograde II)

Above is the video. Below is the final version of my script. I did a pretty good job of remaining faithful to it. Enjoy.


In Utah, there is a place called Goblin Valley. It is a forest of hoodoos – pillars of sandstone and silt that tower above you.

My friend and I slipped into the valley as the park was closing and the stars were rising. We were looking for the entrance to Goblin’s Lair – a slot canyon, a crack hidden among the hoodoos. We didn’t find it. Instead, we got lost. For hours. In the dark.

This is important: When I was little, I was afraid of the dark. But lost in Goblin Valley that night, I took my friend’s arm and said – Look at the stars. That one’s mars. It’s in retrograde. Do you know what that means?

We found Goblin’s Lair the next morning, under the desert sun. It is a gaping hole in the ground that marks a drop of 90 feet from ceiling to floor.

And there I was, standing at the top. My back pressed against a hoodoo. Shaking.

My friend sets the anchor. He hands me the belay device – but it’s one I’ve never seen before yet alone used and I am shaking too hard. I can’t even focus my eyes. So, he sets it up for me.

He starts toward the edge and I am standing there, watching him back up and I can’t hold it in and I said – wait. I’m afraid of heights. You might have to talk me through this.

He looks up and without hesitation says: I will not be able to talk you through this.

I have learned something about being afraid, because I am always afraid. Fear stands at my shoulder, just beyond my vision. Or it stands before me, an ominous hole in the floor.

Here’s something else I know. I hate the phrase “face your fears.” It’s an old cliché and it’s a dick thing to say to someone whose fight or flight response has gone so out of whack that they are frozen in place. It’s not for anyone to say when you are frozen in place.

Besides. How do you face something you can’t see?

Remember. I’m afraid of heights, and I am standing at the mouth of a precipice.

I hear my friend’s voice shout off rappel, I’m looking at the pillars. I’m thinking – I could walk out of here. But I decide that the only way out is down.

I attach the belay device and I lock and unlock and lock and unlock and lock the carabiner just the way I locked and unlocked and locked the doors of my house when I was a child.

And I move toward it – I move toward the hole that is a metaphor for a thousand other fears.

But I do not face it. Oh hell – no I do not face it. I get on my hands and knees. And I crawl. Backwards.

I refused to look down. I refused to look away from the sandstone under my hands. Until I was no longer pressed against the wall. Until the rope took all of my weight. Until I was suspended in the middle of the cavern.

Hanging there, I looked up. I looked down. I looked around.

And it was beautiful. The light illuminated the cavern from above and made the walls glow as red as Mars.

There are things that you do not have to be afraid of, but you are afraid of them anyway.

Someone asked me recently if I had finally learned to avoid the things that make my heart pound and my head spin.

I had to laugh because the short answer is no. The long answer is of course not.

Because I can’t imagine what my life would be without dropping cliffs on skis, descending too fast on bicycles, asking him out on a date, or standing in front of a crowd, speaking my own words for the very first time.

Fear, I find, is as alluring as it is repelling.

Move toward it.

Not all of the time. Not every time.

I could make that rappel for the same reason that I can stand here tonight – because I appear to  retreat. I go home and I sit in my safe house and read my safe books and whisper safe words into the leaves of my plants for days. Weeks. Once I did this for months.

Then, when I’m ready. I go out. I do this as often as I can. Even if I have to get on my hands and knees. Especially if I have to move backwards.

Do this.

Because, as e.e.cummings wrote, even stars walk backwards. Even Mars, god of war, appears to move backwards. That’s the definition of retrograde.

∆∆


To read the original blog post that inspired the talk, go here.

To read my initial post-Ignite reflections, go here.

(Photo by Ignite Boulder.)

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