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Fear and the Art of Being Human

Updated: Aug 24, 2019

by Shelley Tatum Kieran

Managing fear – facing, overcoming, conquering and living with it – is a requisite life skill in the pursuit of being human, and striking a balance between fear and risk is a known commodity for everyone from helicopter parent to adrenaline junky.  But in the heart of a true explorer, it is nothing short of an art form. 

“When you’re the first person to go into a place that nobody’s ever explored, there’s silt on not just the floor, but on the walls and ceiling” cave diver, photographer and all-around badass Jill Heinerth tells Dave Davies in a Fresh Air interview promoting her new book, Into the Planet. “Your very passage through that space and the bubbles that you make can knock that silt off the walls, the floors, the ceiling and obscure your visibility... causing you to get lost in the passages or to not even be able to find your way out.“ 

Hearing this slowed me to a stop early one recent morning as I ran through the quiet streets of Palo Alto, because it speaks to the heart of my own life philosophy about balancing fear and risk in unexplored territory. I have had many moments where – as a parent, or at the beginning of a new project, or in any number of life challenges – I’ve had a hot flash of pure fear that I have no idea what I’m doing, how I’ll tackle this, or how it will possibly get done. And through plenty of life experience and countless life lessons, I’ve come to accept that fear is an instinct, not an intellectual faculty, and that feeling a healthy dose of it makes me a better listener, a more agile collaborator and a stronger contributor – because I’ve moved into unknown terrain without flailing so much that I’m knocking silt off the walls and obscuring the view! 

I may never have the courage of a cave diver who has survived being trapped in a glacier, staying so present in my body that I’m able to quiet my mind. The very next morning, after having this striking moment of clarity about fear, I set out in the dark to do it all again and, leaping to the conclusion that the dark object I saw loaming from one street light to the next on the block ahead of me was a mountain lion rather than a (more likely) racoon, I turned around and sprinted in the opposite direction. I’m only human.

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