Why We Do Scary Things

My start date is 46 days out, and as it nears, some end dates come with it. As beginnings and endings go together, so does excitement and anxiety.

My job for the last five years has been teaching swimming. I work at a school that sits in perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. A few days ago I found myself having a conversation I’ve had a million times over.

“I can’t do it.” A little girl stares solemnly at me from the deck as I tread water in the deep end.

“Yes you can. I would never make you do something you couldn’t do,” I reply.

“I’m scared.” Her giant eyes and the sniffle she’s trying to hide tell me she’s not bluffing.

“Do you know why we practice no-goggle jumps?” I ask. She shakes her head. “If we ever fell into a pool on accident, would we be wearing goggles?” She shakes her head again.

“But we’d still need to swim back to the wall, right?” She nods. “So it’s not a fun thing to practice, but it’s a really important thing to practice.” She shuffles her toes to the edge warily.

“The only way scary things become less scary is by doing them. I promise, after a couple of jumps it won’t seem scary at all.” I reach out my hand and she grabs it. She peers at the water. After a couple of deep breaths, she jumps.

“There’s water in my eyes!” Her voice is rising and I can hear the sob behind it. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that it’s much easier to calm kids down before the tears come than after. I swoop in quickly.

“I know, but you did it! Something was really scary to you but you did it anyway! That’s what being really really, brave is! Aren’t you proud of yourself?”

She’s immediately beaming, turning to her dad. “Did you see me dad? Did you see?!”

I could have that conversation in my sleep.

As my start dates nears, I’ve started having a very different conversation with my kids, one that’s coming much less naturally to me.  I tell them they’ll be getting a new teacher in a couple of weeks and then guiltily explain I’m going on an adventure and how much I’ll miss them, all while they stare at me crestfallen. I’ve taught some of them for years, wiped countless tears and boogers, watched them grow from babies just learning to talk to big kids explaining to me how to dab.

As with the end of anything, I’ve been reflecting a lot on what it was before it ended. When I start hiking in March, it will have been five years since I started teaching. I started out as a petrified 21 year old who had never held a baby, much less submerged one under water. I was soft spoken and couldn’t make myself heard to my kids across the pool. Parents are generally very opinionated when it comes to their children, and the job required a pretty thick skin I didn’t have. As with anything you do long enough, I grew into what I needed to be. I got the teaching voice, the thick skin and the confidence that kids and adults trusted.

A couple of days before I had the “why we do scary things” conversation for the millionth time, I was talking to my dad about my thru-hike, also for the millionth time. The first of all those conversations did not leave him very happy, but he’s warmed up to idea over the months.  “I think I realized this was the kind of thing you were always going to have to prove to yourself you could do,” he explained. We talked about all the ways I could change, who I would be at the end of it all.

Right now, I don’t think I’m the kind of person that could finish a 2,000+ mile thru hike, but I think if I would walk enough, I could grow into what I need to be.

For the majority of the five years, I’ve taught a little girl named Vivian who, on her first day, told me authoritatively that she had no plans to learn how to swim until she turned five (then a long way off). Any doubts I have about hiking for half a year is nothing compared to the fear she had of learning to swim.

For the first couple of lessons she did little more than scream her head off. It was karmic payback for the similar performance I had put up while I was learning how to swim, my dad told me when I mentioned it in passing. My “Why we do scary things” speech was honed during this time and many kids owe her some of the biggest swimming steps they’ve taken. Vivian and I took baby steps, coming off the step, getting our hair wet, our shoulders, our chin, our mouth, our nose. It took a lot of time and patience, but I’d think back to the terror I felt looking into water that felt endlessly deep to my small self and was always able to find it.

Somewhere along the way, a switch flipped for her. She started coming to class with suggestions for steps she thought she could take: a less floaty piece of equipment to hold, or a new place to swim to. One day she stated matter of factly, “I’m feeling nervous about this,” and then proceeded to do whatever it was while I started preparing a lengthy speech in my head. I remember nothing about the incident beyond the casual way she spoke the phrase. Fear had stopped being a reason to her not to do something.  

These days she’s a lanky almost seven year old mastering all the strokes with enthusiasm. After all the classes she wouldn’t come off the step, now she won’t stay there, and I frequently find her swimming out and clambering on my back while I try to teach her younger sister.

Her sister Colette never harbored the same fears Vivian did, but she is an epic sass-master with a lot of charm, stubbornness and a giant personality that always seems a juxtaposition to the tiny 4 year old cherub she is. When she decides she doesn’t want to do something, it’s always a showdown for the ages.

So it was with no-goggle jumps. It was all a little silly, considering less than a year before Colette went through a phase where she stubbornly refused to wear goggles and swam comfortably without them. If I had tossed her into the water and she would have been giggling less than a minute later. But as the first screech of horror came when she realized what I was asking her to do, I went into the “Why we do scary things” speech.

“Do you know why we practice no-goggle jumps, Colette?”

“I do!” Vivian’s hand shot up like she was in a classroom.  She went into her own beautiful version of the “Why we do scary things” speech. She had certainly heard it enough times.

Kids are ridiculously inspiring. The fears they face are even more real in their heads than ours are. Adults can tell themselves a hundred times that a fear is irrational and can still be afraid of it. Kids have no way to tell themselves the fear isn’t real, and then still have to go do it because facing fears is part of growing up.

I have this theory that growing up stops as soon as you stop doing things you’re afraid of. We get to an age where no one can make us do anything we don’t want to do, so we don’t.  We just start aging instead of growing. It’s a really tempting path, a comfortable one that I’ve felt myself walking down at times.

My biggest thru hiking fear is that I’ll fail. That my kids and I will have tearful goodbyes and then I’ll be back a month later. I’ve seen the statistics and I know my odds. I know most people don’t make it to Katahdin. I’m afraid I’ve underestimated the discomfort, the cold, the boredom, the loneliness or the wear that of six months of hiking will have on my body. I’m afraid I might give up. I’m afraid injury or tragedy might pull the decision out of my hands altogether. I’m afraid I won’t make all I’m giving up worth it.

But I’m also no liar and no hypocrite. I can’t spend every day convincing children to face their fears and then not face mine. The “Why we do scary things” speech would start to taste bitter coming out of my mouth real quick. That’s what I remind myself when the goodbyes are heartbreaking.

And so my start date nears and I find myself giving me the “Why we do scary things” speech. 46 more days…

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Comments 2

  • Ruth Morley : Jan 22nd

    Becky, great post! Most ironically, just one hour ago I was trying to explain to someone why I’m doing the AT this coming summer/fall, even though I have a sense of panic about it every now and then. I couldn’t find the right words, but you certainly did. I’m 64. If I just settle for doing safe, predictable things now, I’m afraid it will be the beginning of a rapid decline. I don’t want that. I feel about 20 years younger than I am, and want to keep it that way. Thank you for articulating this. See you out there on the trail! All we have to do is take it one day at a time.

  • Rebecca : Jan 23rd

    Loved the article, thank you for that 🙂 I liked mostly the comparison you make to your job and how we tell kids that they gotta face their fears. I’ll start my hike on 26th of February so we’ll most likely not meet and I just wanna wish you all the best on your trip!
    P.s.: For weeks I was afraid of bears (SO AFRAID!) and then I just started reading about them, their characteristics, and not to see it too much of a threat anymore but as a curious, adorable companion. I am switching from fear to more and more just having respect for the animal… Looking forward to face that fear, as well as the dark nights outside and much more…!


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