On a recent flight, I finally got to watch Free Solo, the documentary of Alex Honnold free climbing El Capitan. That’s a 3,000 plus foot climb without a rope. One mistake, and he’s plummeting to his death. Splat. The filmmakers depict the risk and pressure beautifully. No one in their right mind would do such a climb. Spoiler alert: The fact that he survived shocked many of his friends and climbing buddies.
Just the idea of such a climb sends shivers through me, much less watching it on film. Knowing he succeeded did not make it any easier on me. Actually, I couldn’t watch most of it. My fear of heights sends the sensation of falling through me with the simple thought of being up that high. I played a game on my phone to get me through the most death-defying scenes.
Clearly, Honnold has tamed his survival mode more than the average person. In the film, they show him getting the results of an MRI designed to study what’s happening in his brain when fear-inducing things pop up on a screen. The average person’s brain is all lit up in the amygdala, AKA the Survival Brain. Honnold’s brain barely registered anything. He asked if his brain was broken. They said it was not broken – but definitely he had trained himself not be as fearful as the average person. If you think about it, that’s not really surprising. Otherwise, he would definitely have not been able to climb El Capitan without a rope. His fear would have overtaken him.
However, his LACK of fear might also eventually prove fatal.
Many argue he was stupid to try it. When you watch the film, you see that his friends, and especially his girlfriend, wish some fear would show up to keep him from putting himself into that level of danger. One of the undercurrents of the film is that taking this kind of risk is how he feels alive.
I can’t imagine that he is going to live to a ripe old age. A mistake will catch him at one point, and in free climbing, even a tiny mistake is fatal. He really needs fear in order to survive.
And that’s the problem with fear. And food. It’s not the fear or the food that really matter. It’s the balance that matters.
We need both fear and food in order to survive. We can also overdo it with both.
When our relationship with food is out of balance, we get fat or emaciated. The fallout of eating too much or too little is pretty obvious. Not that having clothes that don’t fit makes it easier!
But, here’s the point: you can’t walk away from food. The only way to stay at the same weight is to be balanced with your food intake. If you use food as a coping mechanism, getting into balance will require you to find another way to cope. Or heal.
Fear is the same way. You can’t walk away from fear either, because fear keeps you out of danger. We are hardwired for survival. Fear can be your friend.
Fear can also be your greatest enemy. When we are out of balance with our fear, we will either over or under do it. We take crazy risks – or we get frozen and take no risks.
I usually get frozen – and as a result, don’t take risks. Or let fear hide in the background, keeping me away from the edge and therefore away from reasonable actions that need to happen. Like difficult conversations. Like trying a new sport. Like writing a blog like this.
Fear gives good reasons for why not to have that conversation or try the sport or write the blog. “Well, the way she spoke out of turn wasn’t really that bad. Maybe it won’t happen again.” “Sure I would love to learn how to row. But what if my boat turns over?” “I love to write about topics that matter. But what if I make someone mad?”
It’s not the fear – or the food – that’s the problem. It’s our relationship with the fear and food, that gets both out of balance. It’s the habitual pattern of just letting fear or food run you that gets us into trouble.
I have a special place in my pantry for chocolate – the really good, dark chocolate that is delicious and “healthy.” When I get a small bite and sit down and actually experience the deliciousness, the chocolate serves as a wonderful treat.
But what do I do all too often? I mindlessly open the pantry door, grab a bite, eat it as I do something else, grab another bit, do something else, and the next thing I know, I’ve eaten 3 servings. And I haven’t really tasted any of it. Now I have to work off those calories. Nope, that doesn’t serve me. It’s out of balance.
Fear and food in balance are our greatest friends. Out of balance, they start to run us and we become a slave to our old habits.
Where has your fear truly served you? Where have you let fear stop you from doing something worthwhile? What do you do to restore balance?
Today I sit on the airplane appreciating realistic thinking instead of wishful thinking. Many times traveling, I only allow for exactly the time it takes to the airport plus a little wiggle room. This trip was more complex. There are three of us traveling, and many more realities, like slowdowns due to construction, a checked bag, dropping dogs off, a loose hog in the middle of a field (not kidding), a stopped school bus, waiting on a contractor to complete a task before we could leave and a thousand moments that I had to yield to someone while in traffic, getting on an elevator or walking the busy hallways of the airport.
The wishful thinking I often bring to such a trip says that the path from here to there is mostly clear and everything will be smooth sailing! For the most part, my wishful thinking expects none of those other tiny moments of yielding. From that state of mind, every slowdown is a problem that fuels my “hurry-up-itis”.
As I watched the elevator doors close in the parking garage, leaving me standing there wishing I had drank MUCH less tea on the way to the airport, it dawned on me that life is much more peaceful when I treat those realities as something to be expected instead of dreaded.
Today has had more peace, because I never felt like someone doing something normal was a problem for me.
The moment at the elevator brought into sharp focus how much my state of mind influences how I experience what life throws at me. (I also made a note to self to remember to drink a little less tea on the next trip.)
Wishful thinking not only creates a state of mind just waiting to turn normal into awful; it also shields me from facing realities that really need to be faced.
When Jen was in the early stages of her recovery, I had done a LOT of facing reality. Like facing that my daughter was a drug addict. Like facing that I had played a part in the circumstances that brought her here. Like she could die.
Even after all that “realistic thinking” and progress in her recovery, I found myself easily falling into wishful thinking.
After several years of turmoil, trauma and healing, she was finally on a much better path. She was living near us, going to school and doing all the right things to stay clean. We had learned to set good boundaries and structured her living arrangements so that she had a good place to live. One of the conditions was that she not have a roommate.
I can’t remember what caused me to question it, but one day, I was driving into town and would pass her apartment on the way. I got a feeling. One part of me said “You need to go check it out.” The wishful thinking part of me said “Don’t go. If you find something you don’t like, you will have to deal with it. Better to not know.”
There’s a funny thing about a thought like that. Wishful thinking is often not burdened with the clarity of words. Instead, it’s just a foggy sense of hoping that things are fine. That not doing anything is a good thing. That not knowing means everything is ok. That staying ignorant lets me off the hook.
When the words come into focus, it’s much easier to realize it’s wishful thinking.
Because the words came in more clearly that day, I could look at them and recognize that wishful thinking would not make the problem go away. If there was a problem, I needed to know so we could solve it.
So at the last minute, I turned into the parking lot. My palms were sweaty and the butterflies were fluttering. What if my instinct is right? Once I knew, I could no longer live in wishful thinking. What is my next move? Will I have the courage to make a move? What happens then?
I summoned the will to get out of the car and went to the door. Now I was torn between feeling like I was invading her privacy and defending a boundary. I almost turned back. But once I saw myself actually saying “Better not to know” I knew it was a lie.
After a couple of false tries, the lock finally opened. It was as if the lock was testing my resolve. At that moment, I could have said “I tried to get in but the door wouldn’t open.” Oh well. Go back to wishful thinking. I’m quite sure I’ve taken that path too many times in my life.
When I walked through the door, I was relieved to see an orderly apartment. A quick pass through the rooms told me there was no unauthorized roommate.
I didn’t have a sigh of relief. It was much bigger. My exhale was more like a Cat 3 hurricane. My relief was immense and palpable.
It was only then that I could realize that I really did do the right thing - regardless of outcome. I needed to know.
If Jen had fallen off the path, then she would have been responsible for the fallout created by her choices and actions. My denial would not have served her; instead would have fueled her decline. I would have been soft on her to save her from herself, and in the end, hard on myself.
Seen that way, it changed how I’ve come to approach those moments when I would rather not know. Am I really going to NOT show up for someone important to me to make it easier on myself? Who am I not to enforce the agreements I’ve made with people that matter? And how can I help stop myself from lying to myself?
If you have been watching my love of skiing starting to morph into a love of horses, you are seeing the answer to that last question.
What I’ve learned is that horses don’t lie. If I show up lying to myself (and therefore to them) about whether I’m relaxed and confident, they will pick up on that and show ME how I’m really feeling. That gift is priceless to someone like me who is good at putting on the “I’ve got this” face.
The famous physicist Richard Feynman said “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Every time we fall on wishful thinking, we run the risk of creating unintended fallout. Wishing something to be so doesn’t make it so. It just makes us delusional.
Realistic thinking may seem difficult - but it’s the path to more peace of mind.
Where are you relying on wishful thinking to absolve you from solving the real problem? What lies do you tell yourself because you would rather not deal with something? What fallout are you creating for yourself and those you care about by ignoring reality?
Inspiring new ways to look at learning, growth, and reinvention, whether in leadership, athletics, art or life.
Once you have subscribed, you will be sent a confirmation email. Please go and check your inbox, if you do not see a confirmation email, it may have gone to your spam folder.