Published on August 22nd, 2013 | by Evita Gahagan
Every vacation, our family gets in the water. So swimming lessons for my daughters are high on our priority list. When my oldest daughter, Elasia, was almost five, we found a class where I didn’t have to get in the pool with her, which was a critical detail as I had my three-year-old along.
Separated from my daughter by a giant window, I watched risk factors collide with unexpected changes to the plan. My heart stopped. The odds of this being a successful investment of money and time were clearly stacked against Elasia.
1. This was her first time taking “real” classes.
2. She is very cautious by nature, has some sensory processing issues, and has never been in a pool without us.
3. Everyone was older than her.
4. Everyone had taken swim classes together last season at this same YMCA and knew each other, except Elasia
5. This was the first time she had stepped foot in this building.
6. She was the only girl.
7. The kind lady she thought was the instructor went into the office, and a man she didn’t know jumped in the pool and barked for the children to get into the pool one at a time.
Would my little green bean be able to get through this class without a royal freak out?
I saw her legs tremble. I watched her wring her hands. She looked up, bottom lip quivering, to where she knew I was watching, looking for some kind of reassurance. I waved and gave her a big thumbs up. (Truth: it took EVERYTHING in me to not crash through that glass, run across the pool deck, and scoop my little girl in my arms and tell her we’d wait ’til next year.)
I chose to wait and watch what she would do in the face of fear.
What does fear look like in your life?
Fear gets a bad rap. Fundamentally, it has played an important role in keeping the human race going. Our ancestors experienced the fear of impending danger and either escaped or defended themselves to live another day, procreate, and continue the human race.
Yet on a daily level, fear looks different than the threat of a predator’s attack. It’s more subtle and is called by different names, like worry, stress, and anxiety. That nervousness we get before a work project is due, that sense of infuriation when a child endangers himself, that temptation to lash out when a loved one threatens abandonment—all the outworkings of experiencing fear.
Fear, like all emotions, has no moral bearing. It is neither right nor wrong. Our response to fear, however, can be “right or wrong,” or, more appropriately termed, healthy or unhealthy.
Healthy responses to fear:
Action: solve the problem, face the fear, get outside help to remove the object triggering the fear, gather information to diffuse the fear. It takes a decisive moment of courage to unfreeze after initially experiencing fear and choose action, but no superhero cape is required.
Acceptance: realizing no more action is possible and choosing to let go. This is commonly necessary in parenting fears, career anxiety, and relational conflict. We can only control what is in our sphere of influence, and, with the right tools (spiritual community support, counseling, and other resources), we can make peace with all that we can’t control.
(Here I am not addressing the valid issue of a phobia—an extreme or irrational fear or aversion—or an anxiety disorder, which may require counseling and medication to handle in healthy ways.)
Unhealthy response to fear:
Avoidance: when faced with a threatening or challenging situation, avoiding it altogether. We tend to customize our lives around avoiding stress, anxiety, or worry without addressing the cause of our fear. This may look like busying our lives, ignoring those emails/phone calls, or denying the fear even exists. Yet the fear is still there, looming large and intimidating like a bully who has us cornered in a playground. If we avoid action and/or acceptance, we are choosing to live in that state of experiencing fear.
Medical and psychological studies all over the world have concluded this will only cause our health to deteriorate and have negative effects on our life situations. Heart problems, compromised immune system, inflammation, and gastrointestinal problems are just a few of the possible health risks of unhealthy fear responses. Because of the increased blood pressure, living with fear is a major stroke risk factor. http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/symptoms/stress-and-anxiety/possible-complications.html
I understand the value of healthy responses, and yet, when I feel the beginnings of fear creeping up inside, why is my first instinct to ignore it, rationalize the feeling away, or simply live “on edge,” hurting those around me with my outbursts of anxiety or anger? In those moments, I need to choose to be brave—a lesson I have humbly learned over time from Elasia.
Learning to act with courage
Every other kid slid right into the pool, as if they had the process memorized. They held on to the side and started kicking.
I watched Elasia wipe a tear that had snuck out of her eyes. She looked up again and smiled at me. (Smiled?! I still can’t believe it.)
She tentatively slid into the pool and held on to the side and…began her kicking.
With the other moms and their “been there, done that” expressions, I knew I couldn’t really scream with joy right there. But I could’ve flown to the moon! I had just watched one of the most courageous people I’ve ever known face fear with action.
I know my little girl. I know what situations are difficult for her, situations that might not even be an issue for anyone else. Because of things we couldn’t have known or foreseen, this swim class was set up to be one of the single most difficult things for Elasia. And she was brave. She chose to look her fear in the face, and she chose to act.
Now, would it have been okay if she had chosen avoidance? If she had had a meltdown at the side of the pool? Yes. I wouldn’t have shamed her. I’d have understood. I know life is going to present so many more of these fearful moments.
But in this moment, she chose to be brave. And her determined, tear-streaked face is etched in my memory as a permanent bookmark, a reminder for me to make similar choices.
When I’m tired and frustrated and scared of my own ignorance, and it would be easier to yell and demean my children, I must choose to be brave, to be their hero and parent them through their difficulties.
When I’m intimidated by the potential for failure when new opportunities present themselves, I can choose to be brave and take risks.
When I’m afraid of the consequences that my healthy choices may have on the relationships I hold so dear, I should choose to be brave, to live with honesty and integrity, as this is the only way to true intimacy.
Elasia is one of my heroes for many reasons. Her sensitivity to others’ feelings, her care for the overlooked, her quick wit and intelligence…my list could go on. But one of my most treasured lessons was what she showed me three years ago at her swim class:
It’s possible to choose courage, even if you don’t feel brave.
Image from a photo by Marco Arcangeli under a Creative Commons license