Imagined Fear

A crowd gathers to watch me climb.  Some in the distance are the disinterested, yet still present, arbiters of strength.  Some whisper to each other, about something unheard but interpreted by my strongest fear nonetheless.  One near the front, maybe the other end of the rope, speaks the casual words of encouragement that reduce the coming feat to within my grasp, increasing the pressure of delivering.  As I go higher, the judgement from below builds with every motion, every misstep.  Until the inevitable.  Failure.  On display.

For as long as I can remember, I just have not been good enough.  It started as early as age 8, when I broke my mother’s heart with this realization.  Since then, I forced myself into typical sports where I was never going to fit in.  I failed to recognize accomplishments in the moment and chose instead to compare myself to an evermore elite group.  And because I love climbing more than all else, it has the potential to highlight that I am just not good enough.  The weight of human eyes, their judgement, real and imagined, is always there.  My fear of not being good enough is stronger than any emotion.  It starts as a sinking in the pit of my stomach, rises hot through my chest, and finds its way out as the dark look on my face.  It brings out the parts of me that I wish away in shame.  Hiding myself, I lash out and find any way I can to make my shortcomings someone else’s doing.  No one is safe, not even my closest and most loved.

The first time I was truly able to escape the fear of not being good enough was on Cannon Cliff in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  It was my first year of climbing and my partner and I had hastily picked out the destination after bailing for weather further north.  It was going to be my first time on a big wall, and even though it is not world class tall, Cannon has a reputation for unprotected sections, unsuspected storms, and falling rock.  The path around my strongest fear was through real fear, as opposed to the fear that is a figment of my imagination.  On Cannon, I found it impossible to think about the fear of not living up to others’ expectations. 

Real fear kept me awake as I lay cramped, trying to sleep in the back of my wagon at the trailhead, and it stuck with me until I took the sharp end.  The start of our route had many pitches of slabby, confusing route finding and due to our very early start, some very damp conditions.  On the second pitch, on my very first move of the day, we encountered what was to be the wettest and most difficult to protect piece of the whole day.  A holdless friction slab up to an overlap that was equally holdless until you could throw for a tantalizing hand crack in the distance.  Even on the dryest days, you would think twice.  As a brand new climber, 15 feet from the belay with no gear, feet skating over the slimy rock, hands unable to find a hold, let alone dry ground, I should have thought more than twice.  My partner had just backed down from the move to build a lower belay, and upon my arrival, was debating whether this move was worth it.  

The mere hint from my partner that the route doesn’t go for us could have sealed our fate, but I had put myself in a position of commitment.  I could back down to the world of people and judgment, to the world of my imagined fears.  Or I could continue up into the real fear of the alone.

For me, the choice was simple.  People are fickle and my imagination of their judgment is even more capricious.  The fear of expectations, people, judgement, and not being good enough is untamed and will eat me alive.  The rock is simple, clean and pure, and in my short lifetime it seems unchanging.  Any misstep, any fall is forgivable against such an unchanging monolith.  The choice, for me, is simple.  Up I went, to be alone, even if only for 60 meters.

Since that day, I know that I am not made for measurement against my peers.  I want to sit at the edge of the wall at the end of the day, and whether someone sits at my side or not, I want to feel the weightlessness of my day.  This has driven me to find like-minded people and has driven us further afield.  It has also driven me to ignore cautionary advice, well meaning it may be, so I may seek the next big adventure that might just be out of my reach.  The goal is worth it though, the feeling of lighting out into the unknown, even if only unknown to you.

Authored by Andy Munas

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3 thoughts on “Imagined Fear

  1. Jowe, I remember you were young and her tearing up when you lamented : “Mom, I just want to be really good at one thing”. But really, it wasn’t because you weren’t good enough — not at all. It was because your heart was broken over it. That’s what love does. And now, with what I see you accomplishing in your life, it isn’t the fastest time trial, the most billable hours, or the toughest climb, it’s how you open your heart and how love yourself and those around you. We are all so small in form, yet are fully able to realize the potential vastness in the landscape of our hearts, that’s what success in life is. I have no doubt she (M-O-M) would be immensely proud of you and your success. I know I am.

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