If you aren’t terrified, it isn’t courage

23 10 2015

North Percy summit

So Mary invited me up to Colebrook for a couple of days, to stay in the cabin that is sanctuary, and wander the trails that are therapy. I seized the opportunity for a few days respite. On the way I visited Laura, my friend who has a house on Balch Lake. She put aside a mountain of miserable paperwork (she straddles the roles of doctor and administrator) to go out for one last kayak tour of the lake before the powers that be pull the plug and drop the water table to winter levels. The weather was beautiful. We skimmed across the surface of the water. Autumn color, not quite at its peak, reflected in the ripples.

I love kayaking. Propelling oneself with little effort through still waters to places otherwise inaccessible, like small islands and remote coves. Surprising a turtle on a half-submerged log. Watching loons bob and dive, sometimes to surface mere feet away, regarding one curiously with their ruby eyes. The soft sound of lily pads brushing against the hull, their delicate lotus faces looking up. I recall once paddling out in the middle of the night on a remote lake. The shore was dark; there were no cottages, no camps, no glow of man-made light. The moon hung in the sky above, the water was black and opaque. Such an exquisite sense of silence and isolation.
Mel kayak

But this day was rich with color, the glow of autumn foliage, a vivid blue sky, as Laura and I toured the maze of islands and inlets.

In Colebrook, considerably further north, the annual foliage display was peaking. It was Columbus Day (a.k.a. Invasion Day, Imperialism Celebration Day, and Subdue the Savages in the name of Church and Greed Day) weekend, and the tourists (a.k.a. Leafpeepers) were massing. I took the back roads from Balch Lake through Maine to avoid the inevitable pandemonium on Route 16. I got to Colebrook late, and in the morning, I awoke to moose outside the cabin window.

I feel like such a coward sometimes, afraid of things most others seem to think nothing of.

How do people do it, day after day, being with each other? Making small talk, chatting. Having so many friends and acquaintances, running into each other unexpectedly or through planned meetings and dates; how do they remember everyone’s names, and the names of their kids and relations? How do they know what to say to each other, what questions to ask, what not to ask? And it seems so easy and natural to them. They seem to enjoy it, and in fact go out of their way to arrange social situations. I go out of my way to avoid them. Not out of any animosity towards anyone. Not at all. It’s just that alone is easier.

Most folks see someone they know and feel a rush of pleasure. I feel a rush of adrenaline.



Mary and Nick volunteer extensively in the community. They are incredibly generous and kind, always ready to help out if they can. Same with Laura, who works long hours at a clinic in Manchester. She is much in demand, being multilingual. Many of their patients are refugees and immigrants. Laura is devoted to helping others, and toys with the idea of joining Doctors Without Borders when she retires.

I consider myself extremely lucky to have friends like these. But I worry that I’m being a bother. I try hard to be a good guest when I visit, but it’s difficult to know sometimes what I should say and do. My hosts are such good people, they’d never let on if I were a bother. Do they genuinely enjoy my company? Or do they feel sorry for me and are being kind? I can’t tell. I just can’t read people.

So I try to take them at their word and not worry about it. Enjoy my time with them and try to relax. Still, I’m always on a bit of an edge, making sure I say and do the appropriate thing. Even when it’s pleasant and fun, being with people can be exhausting after a while. Being around strangers puts me in a sweat. Being around people with whom I have a history of miscommunication and ugly episodes makes me feel as stressed as a deer in hunting season.

Mary and Nick

Mary and Nick

I feel pretty sure I know where I’m at with Nick and Mary. (So I’m chiefly concerned with not doing or saying anything to screw this up.) Their delight at seeing me seems genuine, and they often go out of their way to make sure I feel welcome. Our shared interest in hiking, in the beauty of the trail and the natural world makes for easy and spontaneous conversation. Often they will take over the conversation, especially Mary. I can relax and just listen, nodding, preparing an appropriate comment here and there. And what they talk about is interesting to me. Politics, history, intellectual stuff at just about the level of sophistication where I am. We agree on most things, or disagree just enough to make it interesting. I forget to worry about how I’m doing.

I envy people like Nick and Mary and Laura. People who are easy around people. They can do so much good in the world.

On Monday we decided to hike North Percy Peak. Driving up route 3 to Colebrook one can’t help but notice the Percy Peaks, two conical mountains, the northern one distinguished by a bald, ledgy summit. I’d been curious about them, so leaped on the suggestion to hike the Percy Peak trail. The day was unseasonably warm, sunny, rich with autumn colors.

North Percy trail ascending

North Percy trail ascending

The Percy Loop is about six and a half miles, starting and ending on Nash Stream Road with about a mile and a half to walk along the road in between. The first mile or so going up was pleasant, the climb moderate, through a mixed beech and hemlock forest. Then it got steep, climbing to the right of a rock slide slick with runoff. Through the trees I could catch occasional glimpses of the peak, with its steep slabs of rock. Mary assured me that we wouldn’t be going up that side; the trail would swing to the right and ascend more gradually.

The forest changed to firs and stunted birch, the deep, rough and rocky terrain of North Country mountainsides. The occasional mountain ash startled the eye with its scarlet berries; on the slopes below red maples punctuated with vivid crimson the orange and yellow of the other hardwoods. Then the trail opened up as we reached the ledges. The way was marked by cairns and faint daubs of orange paint. The only trees were dwarfed by the harsh environment, poking jaggedly up amid the profuse burgundy of blueberry bushes and mountain laurel. Although the rock is rough, and easy to get traction on as long as it isn’t wet or icy (which it wasn’t that day) the pitch is fairly steep. One look around and you realize you are utterly exposed, the sky stretching out above and all the world to the curve of the horizon spread out below.

I knew there was little danger, and my companions had no trouble walking up the slab. But fear sent out its tendrils. I was going to slip and fall to my death, or at least to grievous injury, impaled on sharp branches and jagged rocks below, limbs breaking and flesh torn.

Irrational fear is, well, irrational. There is no arguing with it. So even though I knew there was little actual danger, I still fell onto my knees, panting with terror, scrambling up the ledge in a cold sweat. When I finally reached the level plateau of the summit, I stood for several minutes trying to catch my breath, my heart racing. I made it. Hopefully way down would be easier.

The view from North Percy looking towards Christine Lake

The view from North Percy looking towards Christine Lake

We sat on the summit, glorying in the 360 degree view. While we ate our lunch, a small critter, some sort of mouse or vole, popped out of a dense clump of shrubs to inspect us. The little guy was remarkably fearless, busily at work gathering small mountain cranberries and disappearing into the tangle. I imagined that he had a burrow in the rock, following where the roots of the stunted fir pushed down into the cracks. There he had made himself a cozy home lined with plant fibers, perhaps stray down from grouse or juncos, with an adjoining pantry loaded with goodies. Perhaps he supplemented his stocks with the crumbs from other hikers who, like us, stopped here to eat their sandwiches and Clif bars. He might have peanuts and raisins, even bits of chocolate, plenty to sustain him through the bitter winter months. The winds would howl and the snow would fly, but he would be snug and warm and well-fed.

It was a delightful interlude.  Ravens croaked and soared on the updrafts.  The contours of the White Mountains rolled away around us.  Then I found out as we prepared to leave that we were going down the way we had come up. There was only one trail to the summit, a spur off the loop trail, and I was going to have to brave the rock slab again.

Going down is worse. Descending a trail, especially a steep one, is essentially an exercise in controlled falling. Going up, you are facing the mountain as you climb. Going down you are facing away from it (unless you turn around and scramble backwards, which is tricky because you have to keep looking over your shoulder to see where you are going). On a trail surrounded by trees, lowering myself over the tumble of roots and boulders typical of the White Mountains, I have no problem. But this was bare rock, sloping downwards, nothing to hold on to. I was certain to slip and fall.

Unless I was going to spend the rest of my life on the summit of North Percy Peak (if only I could shrink myself down to mouse-size and bunk with the little critter!) I had to go down over that slab of exposed granite.

So I did. Crabwalking, gripping every crack and pressing my toes into every dent, hyperventilating, fighting the urge to freeze and press myself against the surface and squeeze my eyes shut against the impossibly steep, unendurably long stretch of rock I was navigating.

It’s embarrassing being terrified at something irrational. Nick and Mary were patient, encouraged me, hovered close by reassuringly. Fear blended with shame.

I was being a bother.

The moment passed. I made it to the end, to where the trail became roots and rocks with trunks and branches to hang on to. To where I could stand upright and not be seized with the unshakeable conviction that I was going to pitch forward into oblivion.

The remainder of the hike was lovely. The grade became moderate, and we eventually descended into a golden forest lit with the slanting rays of the sinking sun. We talked and laughed, exclaimed in wonder at the effects of light and leaf, the beauty no camera can faithfully capture. Tired but happy, we reached our cars and I said goodbye to my friends. They would drive north, back to Colebrook, and I would head south, back to Deerfield.

On the drive home I remembered something I’d heard once. Courage doesn’t mean being without fear. It’s doing what one must in spite of it. We have little control over feelings of fear; it rises out of a primal part of the brain with the best of intentions, to warn us of a perceived danger. That danger might be real–the stranger with the gun, the venomous snake, the oncoming car–or it might be minimal. Even completely imaginary (we are really good at imaginary). Doesn’t matter. The feeling of fear is just as urgent

It’s how we react that makes the difference. We can judge the threat genuine and take immediate steps to avoid it. We can realize the threat is minimal or even imaginary, but we avoid the situation anyway because it is easier than trying to fight the fear. Or we can understand the threat but risk it anyway because of some pressing purpose that trumps it. That takes courage.

There are people who are fearless, able to walk into even extremely dangerous situations without breaking into a sweat. But that isn’t courage. (In fact, it might be pathological, or even outright stupidity.) It’s not courage if you aren’t scared out of your wits.

Going up that ledge–and then down again–terrified me. But I did it. I wasn’t a coward for being scared. I was brave because I overcame my fear.

That’s what is admirable: when we pull ourselves together and get on with it, not in spite of the danger, but in spite of the fear.

On Signal Mountain

On Signal Mountain




7 responses

23 10 2015

Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

23 10 2015
Mary Jolles

You are absolutely right–it isn’t courage if you feel no fear. But I want you to know that you were NOT a bother–it was such a delight to share your enthusiasm when we reached the summit, and again when we returned through the beautiful hardwood forest. All worthwhile things take patience. I knew you were struggling with the heights but I had faith that you could master your fear. You’ve done it many times before! Bravo!

25 10 2015

Thank you, Mary.

23 10 2015

That was so wonderfully written – your descriptions are better than any photograph. I especially liked the kayaking at night. I could almost be there.
You faced not just a rock face, but dealing with your fear of being judged and found wanting. I’m proud of you! I’m so happy you found and realised that you had found moments when your constant fear of people went away.
I have a question for you to ask yourself, that might help see your fear in a different light. If someone you want to spend time with was being a bother to you now and again, would it change how you feel about them as a person?

25 10 2015

Of course I see your point. But this is rational thinking. I have not yet mastered the skill of bringing the non-rational part of my psyche into line with what makes sense.

26 10 2015

Crap. I’m sorry, that is a problem I have, being overly logical. It works for me: when I am also capable. Which isn’t always, of course. I still think you did a great job, and thanks for sharing your worries.

28 10 2015

No apologies necessary. As I said, you are right. And I do try to use that strategy. In fact, part of MBCT therapy is taking precisely that attitude: How would you act if this were a dear friend and not yourself? All those harsh criticisms–you would never say such things to a friend. Why say them to yourself? It is an absolutely valid strategy. And often I am able to make it work for me.

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