I always thought I was fearless. I thought I was fearless because everybody else thought I was fearless. My fearlessness is easy to find. It is the kind of courage that allows me to stare down a wrongdoer, to fight back. To speak up when words matter. My sister calls it me being good at ‘shutting things down’, and she’s probably right. It is a type of courage so earnest, that many would find difficulty in thinking it is not real. There exists real difficulty because people want to believe, too, that fearless people exist. Fearless people are inspiring. Fearless people stand their ground when it is most needed. Fearless people push us and our narratives forever onward, in spite of the Great Unknown. The thing is, though, that they don’t. Fearless people are only ever at best ‘fearless’, and ‘fearless’ people still fear things.
Shall I tell you what I fear? The name of this blog is telling – tiny fears. I came up with it at a time where I realised that I was scared of a whole lot of tiny things, things that people shouldn’t be scared of. I thought that was kind of funny, and still do. Some of them are downright mundane, and often senseless – e.g. I hate birds because their beaks freak me out – but others, there are reasons for my multiplicity of fears. I believe that because every person’s self-consciousness is unique, so are their fears. Fear exists precisely for the purpose of undermining one’s securities, and to undermine them, one must know what they are. Fear knows exactly how to get under your skin. Fear knows I love big courage. Fear knows I believe that one should never let Fear tell you what to do or not do. Fear knows I think that limits are just arbitrary things we set for ourselves – that limits were made to be broken. I am wrong, and Fear knows it, but Fear won’t tell me, because if it does, then Fear won’t work. And where’s the fun in that?
I was watching an interview with Kilian Jornet, the first man to run up Mt Everest without stopping without the use of oxygen, an amazing feat. Despite the apparent fearlessness of his actions, he lets fear control him. “We all have our limits and capabilities, and should let what we do be informed by those things,” he says. There was some video footage of him walking to the foot of Mt Everest, and then deciding that he wasn’t ready, and turning around and going home for the day. He would try again tomorrow, he said. This astonished me. My immediate reaction to this video was the same as that of his cameraman – “are you serious?”
If I were in his position, I know that I would’ve climbed that fucking mountain. Even if I felt some sort of sickly premonition, I would’ve climbed it. I wouldn’t have climbed it because I was being brave – but because everyone was waiting for me to climb it, and so I did. I would’ve climbed it out of fear for what I would face if I didn’t – the fear of people no longer thinking of me as courageous. And for me, that looks an awful lot like big courage. So much of the time, what looks to be courage is just a front, sparked by self-righteousness, insecurity and fuelled by society’s constant appraisal of big acts of courage over small. So now I wonder, when am I showing courage, and when am I just showing off? How do we really know courage when we see it, if it cannot be defined by our constant rejection of fear, the way we always shove it off to the side? The idea that courage is not the absence of fear assumes that fear is an ever-present characteristic. Yet for highly trained soldiers in war, sometimes fear is not the most relevant consideration. In the heat of the moment, all you care about is making sure everyone gets out of there alive, and you do what you were trained to do. In the end, I think courage is about care.
There is quiet courage in recognising our limits and staying our hand, and there is loud courage in pushing them. We must know our limits, know that there will be moments where we should fold, if it is too much to bear. But also know that our limits can change, and if we push them in the spirit of care for ourselves and for others, we will hold fast. In the end, courage is not just about steady hands, but steady hearts.