Saturday, February 19, 2005

Fear itself

It occurs to me that fear has sometimes held me back, and I’m wondering how to decide whether or when that’s a good thing for an Outlaw.

Last summer, for instance, my honey and I came pretty close to drowning in a rafting accident. We thought we were going with friends for a leisurely float, but unexpected flooding caused us to crash into a tree when the creek overflowed its banks. I was pinned underwater by the raft and the current, and my honey was thrown fifty feet downstream. We both got out fine, but we were luckier than I care to think about.

I’m scared now to try any kind of whitewater rafting, because I KNOW what could happen. I have some idea of what it would be like, to drown, trapped under the rushing water that's much stronger than me. And I don’t ever want to go through it!

But then, there are things that I’ll try that would scare the bejeepers out of other people. Holding that python around my neck last summer, for instance (that was cool). Hopping onto the back of my honey’s motorcycle on our first date. Doing public speaking on a frequent basis.

On the other hand, I’ll NEVER try skydiving, and I simply cannot face most roller coasters or gravity rides at theme parks. Lots of people love ‘em. Not me – I really think I’d pass out from fright if I tried one.

One day a few years back, though, I was at a theme park, and decided to push my own envelope, so to speak. I went off alone for a bit, to prove I could do it without being dared. First I took a gondola ride around the park – this thing isn’t your average ski lift, it’s much higher off the ground. Great view from up there. Hated the sickening jolts as the pulley wheels bumped over the supports now and then. Scary, but exhilarating too.

Then I put myself onto a roller coaster. Not a real scary one, but scarier than I’d ever done before. Sat in the front car, too. Thought I was going into the lake at one point in the ride. Screamed in excitement. Had such a blast I went on it again, right then and there.

It was a very good thing to do. I walked taller afterward. I still don’t feel ready to face the super-fast legs-hanging-free twisting-loop-de-loop three-G-force coasters, but I know I’m not a total wuss, either.

Challenging myself again, a couple of months after my raft crash, I was at a pool with some friends, and this pool had a fabulous, huge waterslide. Very twisty-turny. Now, laugh if you want, but I was scared to try it. The rushing water spooked me. But I still wanted to see how it felt, so I jumped up and said, “C’mon, you guys!”

As I climbed to the top and prepared to push off, they all yelled, “Lie down flat! You’ll go a LOT faster!”

They were right. A LOT faster. But scary to me, although they couldn’t know what I was dealing with, because the water rushing over my face felt like fighting that creek again, and because, going down feet first and flat on my back, I couldn’t see where I was going. Like being at the creek’s mercy again. Loss of control.

And I think, for me, that’s part of the problem. I HATE loss of control. For instance, I don’t want to skydive, but I’d love to learn to fly a small airplane. Now, that water slide was a heck of a lot of fun. I went on it about six times, I liked it so much. I just held my nose and the rushing water over my face didn’t bother me much at all. I was ready to face that much. I guess that was courage in a small way.

No doubt about it, an Outlaw needs courage. And courage means doing what you fear, in spite of the fear – because you haven’t overcome the fear yet. If you’re not scared, at least a little bit, why would you need courage anyway?

Conscious courage will get you far, and necessity will accomplish even more. Fear itself can't stop us if we won't let it. If I learned to fly that plane, and then had to bail out – well, I guess I’d have to draw on that necessity-type courage to see me through. And I imagine I’d come back changed for the better, if I was still in one piece more or less.

But, when getting together a team of Outlaws, it might be best to make sure you balance out the skydiving wussies, like me, with a former Airborne fellow or two. You can sign me up for the public speaking jobs instead.

Conclusions: Let's each start with what we do best, and develop our courage in other pursuits as and when we can. I think that readiness goes a long way in this regard. So does encouragement from those who aren't so scared (anymore) of skydiving or speechmaking.

And, let's always remember to do at least one thing every week, or month, that does scare us. Courage workout, if you will. In fact, I'm overdue for one of those. Whitewater rafting, anyone?

Monday, February 07, 2005

The tragedy of history

Today I attended a presentation of live music and dance, promoting the coming celebration of the 400th anniversary of the English settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, which will take place in 2007. The concept, roughly, was to bring together representatives of the three cultures and races that lived on those shores so long ago. I watched as Indians danced their mysterious rhythmic steps and called their high, wailing cries, and as gospel singers intoned old slave spirituals, heartrending sounds of loss and separation, oppression and pain.

And I looked on as teenaged boys tricked out in Revolutionary garb, the fifers and drummers of Colonial Williamsburg, performed a perfectly executed medley of march and battle tunes with their rat-tatting percussion and sweet piercing trills. I marveled at their faces under tricornered hats, young earnest faces which, one and all, could have been lifted from an 18th century painting.

Faces that should have been laughing with girls and grinning with boyish enjoyment of life, but that were, this day, prematurely solemn and weighty with trouble…not only because of the challenging performance they provided the audience, but because, I think, they were trained to imagine themselves doing the job done by their counterparts two centuries ago: portending with their instruments the onslaught of deafening explosions, acrid smoke, screams and killing, the slaughter of men by men.

And the faces were not merely concentrating on a difficult task - they gave the impression of being inured and hardened to some vast tragedy surrounding them, the kind of blank, bleak defensive barrier that battlefield denizens quickly develop in order to bear the terror occurring around them.

It was an eerie and unsettling feeling. For, along with the sorrows I heard in the music of the Indians and the Africans, this sadness of impending doom was palpable in the air. And what it said to me was that we are soon to face this same tragedy again, that we are already facing it now in faraway lands, and that those of us who love and will defend liberty may be the ones boys like these next serenade onto fields of blood here at home...or, worse, that the roles could be reversed.

Why, why have humans not yet learned to live and let live? Why must and will governments use the vitally alive young people living within their borders to kill and maim the young people of other places on earth? Why must slavery and oppression and torture and misery be inflicted by so many with such perennial vengeance?

I came so close to weeping then and there. With a vast sorrow, with bitter anger, with the frenetic wish to throw myself in the path of any power-drunk slimeball of the current elite who quite blithely grasps at the loveliness that is another’s life, tears it to filthy shreds with a casual, cold chuckle, then smirks, “Next!”

I know this isn’t a helpful message to you Outlaws, and I apologize. It was a very emotional morning, and I’m still searching for the kernel of the experience that might give rise to some useful action plan. All I know at the moment is that such a plan is a desperate need right now…for we are about to relive the bloody and tragic history I saw portrayed this morning.