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On Doing What You Fear

A few weeks ago I did some backpacking for the first time in 31 years. Turns out that when you raise your children with lots of exposure to camping and hiking, they want to drag your aging body up a mountain decades later when you’re not at all sure you can still do it.

Because we had a wedding to attend near Rocky Mountain National Park, it made sense to use the opportunity for exploring the Rockies. A few months in advance, I began walking up and down a hill in a nearby park to prepare my leg muscles and cardiovascular system for the adventure. But even as I got in better shape, I noticed a building anxiety about the trip. Fear is probably the more accurate word.

At 12, on my first backpacker to the Sierra Nevada mountains, I’d developed altitude sickness. I was amazed how that experience from 44 years ago awakened in my consciousness like a dormant virus. If my body didn’t handle it then, how will it handle hiking up to 12,000 feet now? What if I can’t get my breath up there? What if I die up there? Yeah, fear is definitely the right word.

Perhaps I should have just played it safe and skipped the backpacking, but I did not want to miss the experience with my family. The night before we embarked, I couldn’t sleep. A hundred what ifs kept cycling through my mind. Finally I remembered a focusing phrase from St. Teresa of Avila I share with many people who consult me: “Settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon God in yourself.” Is that just an empty idea, or could I let it be a real possibility that I have access to energies way larger than my small, fearful self? I thought. I decided that if God couldn’t do the hike, it wasn’t going to happen, and it would be OK if I had to descend before the others.

I imagined putting Teresa’s 500-year-old words in my pack to accompany me up the mountain. Why not? They didn’t weigh anything, and they just might help. Then I thought of words from two other spiritual companions. An Indian sage Jiddu Krishnamurti said his secret to inner peace was “I don’t mind what happens.” I put his words in my pack, and resolved to accept whatever delightful or disappointing developments our impending hike would bring. Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh also went in the pack. Just the titles of two of his books, Peace is Every Step and Peace is Every Breath, were enough of his life’s work to help me get some sleep.

The next day, we started at 8,700 feet and began our ascent to a campsite at 11,500 feet. All the way up the mountain, as I felt the weight of the pack on my back, I remembered the weightless words I’d stowed in it— especially those two book titles: peace is every step, peace is every breath. Moment by moment, three spiritual mentors I’ve never met were my companions. Just this step, now the next step. Just this breath. Staying anchored to the present moment made it possible for me to feel genuine thankfulness for being with my family in nature instead of dwelling on thoughts like What if I can’t breathe at the top? that had the power to pull me away from the present, away from gratitude and joy.

To my surprise and delight, I arrived at our campsite on a mountain lake at the tree line feeling fine. The next morning I awoke at sunrise and walked down to the lake to see two bull moose frolicking in the water and galloping along the shore. I need to do more of this, I thought.

There are other fears that do not go dormant in me for 44 years because daily life awakens them over and over. Children, money, health, random violence—if I let them, these and others can generate a steady stream of fear that can rob me of joy. But after facing fear on the mountain, and realizing the power of those weightless words, I find myself wondering about what it would take to ascend beyond other fears. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do what you fear and the death of fear is certain.” OK, she’s going in the pack too!

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