Fear is a natural and necessary part of the human experience but sometimes it just gets in your way.
One of the scariest moments of my adult life was at a piano recital where I was scheduled to play. I never wanted to play in front of other people. I signed up for piano lessons because I enjoyed the quiet moments at home, practicing and improving, learning new songs. “All students must play at the Christmas recital,” my traditional Hungarian piano teacher told me.
I knew it would be tough but I thought it might be good for me to challenge myself and a great motivation for practice. I agreed to memorize the piece she assigned, a Christmas carol called Here Comes Santa Claus, and play it in the recital.
All too soon, it was the night of the recital and time for me to take my seat at the piano on stage. I was a tightly wound ball of panic. My hands were shaking, sweat on my forehead, arms trembling as I raised my hands to the piano keys. My mind went completely blank.
All the hours I had spent practicing and memorizing the song were gone from my brain. I could not remember the song at all!
A few deep breaths and a desperate attempt to block out the audience finally helped me get started. I did my best to surrender to the knowledge in my fingers as they found the right keys at the right times. Despite my panic and terror, the song came out all right.
My piano teacher had a saying about fear. She said it was really an acronym - False Emotions Aren’t Real. And she was right about the fear I felt that night. Not Real. Regardless of how the recital turned out, I was going to go home afterwards and still have enough to eat, still have a warm, dry place to sleep and me and my family would be safe. And yet, sitting there at the piano, I was so scared, I could not stop trembling. I could not organize my thoughts. All because of fear over a situation that was in no way dangerous.
But what if the fear is real? What happens when your life really is in danger? Is it a different fear?
A few years ago, my husband and I were on the return stretch of a very long day hike in the mountains. We came down off a ridge into a narrow, steep-walled valley filled with a marshy creek surrounded by thick bushes. We were still a few hours’ walk from the road.
As we hiked the trail beside the creek, my husband said, “this is prime bear territory.” Not five minutes later, we noticed a large brown shape looming in the bushes about a hundred meters ahead which we quickly identified as a grizzly bear. The bear seemed to be the size of a small car.
The wind coming from our backs towards the bear carried our scent towards it. This bear already knew we were there. It seemed unconcerned as it dug for roots in the sand. That was good. I thought maybe we could take a wide path around the bear, give it a lot of space and pass by without disturbing it.
Then we noticed the bear was not alone. Two smaller bears, cubs, were with it. I know from reading and research that a mother grizzly protecting cubs is one of the most dangerous bears of all. If she sensed her cubs were in danger, she could respond with a lethal attack.
I looked around for an escape. A tree to climb? No, all the trees in this sub alpine valley were small and thin. The bear would certainly be on us before we could make an escape.
Just then, one of the cubs stood up on its hind legs, looked over at us and sniffed the air. What if it decided to come check us out? Would momma follow? Panic set in. No safe places.
But in that moment, I realized we’d need to keep our minds clear and focused to give us the best chance of getting away safely.
We decided that I would find a path around the bears, as far from them as possible, and my husband would follow while keeping an eye on the bears. We had spent the day trying to keep our boots dry but now I waded through knee deep pools to take us on the safest path towards the lake.
As we approached the lake, I started to feel relief wash through my mind. We were going to make it. The fear ebbed.
I find it fascinating to compare the fear I felt at the bear encounter, where the risk of injury and death was real, with the fear I felt at the piano recital where my safety was not in question.
Fear was important in the bear encounter, it sharpened our senses. We acted fast and made decisions that improved our odds of survival.
Although the fear I felt at the piano recital was just as strong, it was completely unnecessary. It worked against me and made the experience a lot more difficult than it needed to be.
Oddly, the fear I felt sitting at the piano in front of an audience was a lot more difficult to manage. Perhaps because I wasn’t in any real danger. I could allow the fear to take over because there was less at stake. That’s not to say I didn’t try to manage that fear. If I had known a trick or technique to turn it off, I certainly would have used it.
In the years since the bear encounter, I’ve noticed a real reduction in the intensity of fear I feel in non-life threatening situations. Maybe the way I handled my fear with the bears internalized a powerful lesson in my subconscious.
Fear can be managed, it doesn’t have to define my experiences.
Now when I start to feel the fear building up, I ask myself, “Is my life in danger here? Am I 100% safe?” When I realize I’m safe, I feel a loosening in my chest. The fear-tightness subsides and I have a chance to relax and actually enjoy the situation I’m experiencing.
Like I should have enjoyed the piano recital. I practiced hard and played the piece beautifully when no one was listening. It should have been a pleasure to share that with others.
Like sharing this article. I'm proud of it and it should be a pleasure to share it with you.