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Turning Fear into Gold.


In the weeks before the Delhi Commonwealth Games, the world was afraid.

There was a lot to have been afraid of apparently. Not only were there problems in the media about the buildings, we also knew there was a serious threat of terrorism. It was enough to have some athletes have second thoughts and drop out of the competition.

Then the games themselves started. And the fear was replaced with the task ahead. And many who had been waiting to tackle the task, did.

Not only are Australia dominating the games to date, the home nation is also basking in the glint of medals. The pride we had in 2000 began to ripple in the host nation.

When I was younger, I jumped out of a perfectly good air-plane. It was the kind of stunt you tell your friends you would do, and then as the days approached, your stomach tightened and you began to lose sleep.

The day of the jump began and I had awoke about 2 hours before I needed to. I really couldn’t sleep. The night before I had made sure to call my family. Usually I would call on the Sunday, so getting a call on the Friday night was a bit of surprise to them.

“What’s wrong?” asked my dad when I called.

So there I was up earlier than I needed to be and nervous as all hell. I had a light breakfast as I was afraid to have more in case I got sick somewhere between 12,000 feet and the ground. It wasn’t like I was doing a solo parachuting jump; this was a tandem. And it was that thought that made me less afraid. I figured if the chute failed, then that’s both of us that hit that ground at 9.8meters per second per second.

I arrived at the airport on a beautiful sunny day in Canberra at about 6am. Now when I described the plane before as ‘perfectly good’, I was perhaps embellishing the cause. The plane looked like it would have trouble taking off let alone landing again! I looked around at the faces of my friends as we all had goaded each other to do this and here we were about to do something incredibly stupid: or so it seemed.

We got into the outfits and cracked jokes as we climbed onto the plane. We were short one; one of the group had dropped out a few days before, and that was weighing on our minds. Could we too drop out now? The plane struggled to take off it seemed almost like it was daring us to change our minds. Eventually, it cleared the earth.

Now these small planes do not have doors and that really adds to the confidence: not. The wind rushing in and out carried the noise of the propelled engines. You really had trouble speaking to each other. Not that we needed to say anything as looking at others gave you a good idea of your own mirrored trepidation and excitement.

It took the plane a while to get to the height we were to throw ourselves out and the plane was doing its bit struggling to get to the required elevation. But sooner than we thought, our tandem partners were motioning to us to get close to them and we were being harnessed into the guy with the parachute. What? Don’t I get one of my own? What if this guy stuffs up? What if he decides to undo the harness mid jump? What if Newton got it wrong and we travelled at 9.9meters per second per second instead and this somehow stopped the parachute from opening? I wished I had studied physics better.

The time came. We were above the clouds now and it was time. The first of our group was meant to be moving into position and he was a little paralysed with fear. His guide pushed him to the door and he kept saying “Wait! Wait!”. I remember the response he got from his jump mentor. He laughed and said “Wait for what!” and with that there were out the door.

My turn next. Strangely my fear was lessened. What was I waiting for? To let the fear back? I turned to the others and said “See ya down there,” and with that my guide and I jumped.

All fear gone now. The clouds obscured the view. Later I was told that I had actually flipped two or three complete somersaults in the air as we jumped. Didn’t notice that at all. We started the freefall. There was the tap on my helmet. That meant stick your arms and legs out. So I did. And my god! It was beautiful.

The arms and legs out stopped the rolling which I had not noticed as I said. What I did notice was the horizon. The sun was breaking over the east and looking down you could swear you were looking at a map of the city. The 30 seconds of freefall went by much faster than I wanted it too. I could imagine people forgetting to pull the chute. The speed and the wind did not allow the room to talk, hence the taps.  Two taps on my helmet. Arms in. So I did. And the chute opened.

Suddenly all the wind and noise vanished. A beautiful silence. I could hear a dog barking in its backyard  three or four kilometres below me. A quiet sleepy Canberra Saturday morning. Now you could talk freely. I told my instructor that the harness had got caught the wrong way up my crotch.

Embarrassing, but it hurt. He stiffened his feet and told me to get on, so I did. Then I unadjusted my harness and readjusted it like I was doing up a belt. It was only much later that I realised what I had done.

And I was not afraid.

Now we could talk to our friends as we glided down to the park we had targeted to land on. Even though they were a hundred metres or more away, you could talk to them like they were in the same room. Our mentors manoeuvred the chutes to do some simplistic aerobatics. It was the best day ever. No. It was the best 4 minutes 35 seconds ever. From the moment we jumped till the moment we landed was a whopping four and a half minutes with change. It put it into perspective.

You see the fear of the jump; the unknown if you like; lasted for weeks. It lasted until the moment the jump began and then there really wasn’t time to be afraid as you had a task to do. Sure you had harnesses and you checked your chutes. A guy had checked the plane and we had also checked the weather. But you knew that before too. It did not stop you being afraid despite being assured.

I was again reminded of a line from a B-Grade television movie.

“Why are you afraid? Fear is a feeling; no more. You feel cold. You feel hot. You feel afraid. Fear can not kill you.”

Now as a kid it was easy to dismiss this remark. After all if you could die of hypothermia  right? You could burn to death too? But then I got it. You did not die from the feeling. You die because you do nothing about it. And you can die of fear by thinking about the fear and not thinking beyond it.

He was not saying ignore your fear. He was saying use it guide you in adjusting and remove the fear. The weeks of fear eating into us leading up to the parachute jump for what? Less than 5 minutes? And what a beautiful five minutes. So glad to have jumped.

So like always, I finally get back to the topic I originally started. Yes there were many fears surrounding the Commonwealth Games. So you address those fears, you don’t run from them.

We look at the tally of medals our athletes have won and we forget that they had so much fear they needed to remove from the table for them to achieve what they have done. There is danger in everything. And that is why terrorism works so well. Terrorists  remind us of our fears. And we often succumb. And the terrorist is emboldened to remind us again.

But this is not just about terrorism. This is also about the fears we impose on our children and the ones we impose on ourselves.  Lenore Skenazy brought this to my attention with her concept of “free range kids”. Yes we do over wrap our children in cotton wool at times. They are after all precious beings and we do not want to see them hurt. But by taking away their ability to explore the world under our guidance, then we are hurting them in the long run. As a kid I got up to a load of things that still has me wondering what the hell was I thinking. However it was those experiences that have contributed to who I am today. I went to uni at 17 and I was not afraid. I was excited and away from home. Sure there were things I needed to be careful of, but this was an era of no mobile phones. I couldn’t call the folks and ask them their opinion on things. I had to make a decision on my own.

I managed to survive and flourish. Although some would argue that!

We need to adopt the same principles to ourselves and not just our kids. Change is terrible time for many. It brings uncertainty and excitement and yes, fear. We can be crippled by that fear and prefer to remain in the world we know, or we can embrace our fear, acknowledge its purpose and tackle the task at hand.

We need to do this as a nation as we forge the countries future. People are already playing the fear card in regards to the cuts in the water allocations preaching doom and gloom, much like the media and some politicians preach doom and gloom. They prey on the fear we have of change. They rarely speak of the beauty of change.

The limitations of no change

I ask myself sometimes, are these people not terrorists in a way? Demolishing ideas and the prospects of what may be by playing on the fears of others? Is not the purpose of negativity to sow fear and doubt? Was this not the purpose of the 9/11 terrorists? To make us doubt ourselves? To make us doubt each other? To divide so they can more easily conquer?

There is a time to reduce risks, and there is a time get beyond the dwelling on the risks and to live.

It’s time to turn our fear into gold.

Change is hard. Not impossible.

A. Ghebranious      2010            All Rights Reserved

  1. MarionGroves permalink

    Thank you Ash for this very timely reminder that we need to “feel the fear and do it anyway”. I was against our athletes going to Delhi because I was afraid there would be a terrorist attack. So far (fingers crossed) there has only been a snake in a bathroom! I agree that our politicians should set an example and lead us courageously, as we hope they will when we elect them to power. But as you point out, the courage to make strong, often unpopular decisions does not spring out of nowhere – we must give our children sufficient guidance and freedom so that they can learn to trust their own judgement and move autonomously in the world. Like you, I was given this invaluable freedom as a child and it has served me well. Unlike you, I would NEVER jump out of a plane! Great article, thanks again.

  2. moar caek permalink

    Fear is the mind killer
    Fear is the little death which brings total oblivion.
    I will face my fear.
    I will allow it to pass over me and through me,
    And when the fear has gone
    I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
    And where the fear has been
    There will be nothing.
    Only I will remain.

    Frank Herbert (paraphrased from memory)

    Thanks Ash.

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