Early last week, I was about to write about fears and the process of facing up to them. I would talk about traveling to places that once frightened me, meeting and interacting with large groups of new people, and jumping out of airplanes. Then, I would channel all those fears known and met through a more recent apprehension I'd tackled: riding a motorbike.
I would ride off into the sunset and deliver a life lesson about what a great feeling it is to overcome fears, to do something that scares you.
And then I crashed.
Fear, A Living Definition
I’m inclined to believe we all have fears, regardless of whether and how we choose to approach them.
Fear is defined as: an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain.
That pain can be physical or emotional. It can even be a dissatisfying combination of both. Fear is a protective instinct that can be used productively, particularly when coupled with accurate perceptions of risk.
It can also prevent us from doing new things, from moving forward.
The Motorbike Looms
In the world over, and in Southeast Asia in particular, everyone seems to be on a motorbike. There's something about one that appears relatively innocuous, suggesting that riding it will be fairly straightforward and if you take it easy and pay attention, you should be fine.
Guys ride ‘em, gals ride ‘em, kids ride ‘em. I believe I even saw a coconut-plucking monkey riding one the other day.
But in all our visits to Southeast Asia (i.e., motorbike territory), we resisted renting one. We fashioned elaborate excuses; we rationalized our way out by saying that we preferred to walk or take public transport, despite the inconvenience. In retrospect, we denied ourselves opportunities, access, exploration, and experiences that a motorbike would have enabled.
So why did we fear driving a motorbike?
Part of the fear was bodily injury, but I believe the larger fear was one of not being able to handle it properly. I imagined wobbling all over the place, looking foolish, and then possibly having that foolishness translate into injury.
Then we spent some time on the island of Koh Samui at a friend’s house. And unless we wished to starve, we’d have to learn how to ride. (There’s nothing like the threat of going hungry to motivate you do to something you really don’t want to do.)
So we did.
I took a brief lesson. It was surprisingly easy, perhaps too easy. As I moved, my apprehension quickly faded. I wouldn’t say it was replaced with unassailable confidence, but surely confident I was. I was getting the hang of it, I was giving others rides on the back. And because we had our own wheels, we were seeing and experiencing things we otherwise wouldn’t.
I had begun to think how silly we were for putting off renting one for so long.
But much like flying a plane, the greatest challenge of handling a motorbike is less about the grace with which you get it to move and more about the elegance with which you get it to stop.
In a matter of about a second, I learned that lesson rather painfully.
I was on a friend’s motorbike when a pickup truck barreled around the corner of a jungle road in my direction. The driver cut the turn short. In response, I applied the brakes (back brakes, there were less than I'd hoped; front brakes, there were plenty).
Skid, then twist, then fall, then wipe up the road with chunks of my flesh. Then blood, then adrenaline.
I bounced right up, more concerned for the condition of my friend’s bike than for my own body. And for as much pain as my left shoulder, elbow, hip and knee would be in during the days that followed, it was my ego that morning that was bruised the worst. I felt stupid.
It’s funny the nonsense that runs through your head when you are standing bloodied over a piece of machinery that you literally just ran into the ground.
The Postmortem, Facing Fears
I was very lucky that things didn’t end up much, much worse. I limped, but had no broken bones. With the help of a friend who was an EMT, I have been nursing my wounds and bringing my limbs back to health, cleaning and bandaging daily, wrapping in plastic wrap before getting into the shower.
All the road rash and scars – on this island alone – stand testament to the fact that the fear of motorbikes and motorcycles is relevant and real. When I walked through town bandaged, people nodded in understanding: “Ahhh, Samui tattoo.”
Audrey’s mom captured the concern best when, as she considered a best friend who’d lost a husband years ago to a motorcycle accident, she said over the phone: “You know, I don’t like motorcycles. And I don’t like the thought of you on one.”
We also have friends who have injured themselves riding one, who have decided never to ride again.
Why Face Your Fears?
Wow, what a great story. You had this fear. You faced up to it. Then it kicked you in the ass. So what’s your point?
Bad outcomes experienced while facing up to your fears do not automatically validate inertia and retreat.
Doing new things and failing is how we learn. It’s also how we gain experience.
So I reflected and I made a deliberate decision.
My reflection: I don’t regret getting on a motorbike in the first place. I also realize that going down again is a distinct possibility, one that I will do my best to avoid.
My decision: to get back on. I drove on Monday. The bumps in the road vibrated through a sore elbow, but I get around to do the things I need to do.
I do not advocate everyone hopping on a motorbike. It's for some, and not for others. I do, however, advocate acknowledging your fears — whatever your personal motorbike is — by taking a close look at the things that frighten you, and figuring out whether you can press the edges of your apprehension.
Facing your fears may not only enable you to get from where you are to someplace more satisfying, but the process itself may also transform you.
So go ahead, get on the fear. Give it a ride. Go slowly. Pay attention to things around you. Anticipate.
And especially when something bad happens, understand that bad things can happen independent of whether or not you’ve chosen to do something you fear. But just as you consider those bad things, give some airtime to the good things — to the opportunities, experience and enlightenment that your courage helped expose.