One of the more common questions we get asked as thru-hikers is, "How has this trip changed you?". It's not an easy question to answer, and truly changing a person is not an easy thing to do. That being said, the trail has taught us ( and re-taught us, and re-taught us again) some lessons that I hope we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. One of those lessons is how we deal with fear (I'm going to lump fear/dread/avoidance all together for this one).
Confession time: We didn't start philosophical discussion on fear because that's what we like to talk about over dinner. We started talking about fear after reading our friend Matt's blog post "Practicing Poverty and Other Lessons In Stoicism (AKA United Kingdom and Iceland Are Expensive!)". Matt is currently taking 7 months to explore Europe, and is keeping a fantastic blog that you can find at www.giveliveexplore.com. In this particular post, Matt talks about how "Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions"......emotions like fear.
On the trail, we experience fear in an outright and direct way more often than the average American probably does. We actually worry about threats like venomous snakes, Lyme disease, falling trees, water-bourne illness, lightning, protective bears, storms, falls, dehydration, hypothermia, heat stroke, hunger, drowning, hunters, and losing our way - these are things we think about on a daily basis (sorry Mom, I know that was a tough sentence but I figure you've already read "A Walk In The Woods"). And here's the amazing thing.....a good portion of those fears have already happened to us, and here we are, hiking New Hampshire and feeling great.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote about overcoming the fear of poverty:
"Set aside a certain number of days, during which you will be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: Is this the condition I feared?"
In other words, once it happens, is it really that horrible, or is it just something different, and maybe uncomfortable, but something that we can adjust to?
One fateful day, Guyline set out to answer this question - is the fear we feel worse than actually experiencing the things we fear? Was FDR right when he asserted his firm belief that "the only thing we have to fear itself"?
Exhale, parents - Guyline didn't intentionally put himself in harm's way via any of the threats and fears I listed above. Why not start small? In actuality, the day he tested Seneca, FDR, and our friend Matt was the day - and the only day since - we realized we were going to run out of toilet paper in the middle of the woods.
"Well," I said, shaking my head in disbelief at our oversight, "Maybe we won't even need to poop before town." (These types of things are perfectly acceptable, if not encouraged, topics of conversation with significant others, perfect strangers, etc. on the trail).
Guyline looked back at me, his eyes blazing with determination and a hint of "Who are you kidding?", and declared, "No. I'm not letting this hang over me like that. Have you seen any sassafras bushes?".
"Guyline!," I gasped in horror, "You don't need to do this! There are still at least 15 - 20 squares left!" (although inside, I was screaming silently, "please don't use it, you crazy fool, please don't use it......I could totally make it to town on this without you!").
"Bearcub, I SAID, have you seen any sassafras?" he repeated, eyes still blazing.
In disbelief at my good fortune and his bravery/stupidity, I helped him locate the "safe to touch" sassafras leaves and watched in amazement as he picked a healthy handful and headed toward the shelter's privy with his head held high. What a guy......rather than dread this over the next few days, he was taking the bull by the horns and willingly wiping his butt with leaves instead of toilet paper.
"Well?" I asked tentatively when he returned, bracing myself for the worst.
"It wasn't bad.....it was totally fine. It was just like Seneca said."
Well there you have it, folks. It was fine. Just like Seneca said. And so it is with many of the things that we fear on the trail but also in everyday life - failure, being alone, being poor, feeling inferior, change. I'm not advocating that we all go stand on top of a mountain in a lightning storm and challenge the awesome power of Mother Nature to give us something to be fearful of.....but I am advocating that we start using a technique that Tim Ferriss (one of Guyline and Matt's heroes) encourages in his book "4 Hour Work Week"; imagine the worst case scenario - could you handle it? Sometimes, the worst case scenario may be: I will get struck by lightning twice and go into cardiac arrest, causing me to lose my balance and fall off a mountain, breaking both my legs. I will lay there in agony for days, too weak to call for help, while vultures circle and begin pecking at my head. Ok, so go ahead and be fearful for that one.
But more often than not, the worst case scenario isn't that bad. Should I take a leave of absence to hike the Appalachian Trail? Worst case scenario - I fail and go home with my tail tucked between my legs, and everyone just has to get over it. People worth talking to will probably respect the fact that I even tried. Should I leave my safe job and try to start my own business? Worst case scenario - I fail, lose all my money, can't find another, and move into my parents' basement. Sounds lovely, Laun makes one hell of a quiche.
The AT re-teaches me this lesson at least once a week....every time it rains. When my handy dandy iPhone actually has reception, the first thing I do is update the weather report, and the dread starts creeping in for any day with a chance of rain above 30% (about half the time). I spend my day praying for dry weather and dwelling on how terrible it will be to get soaked to the bones. And every time it happens, I realize that a.) all of those hours worrying didn't change anything, and b.) it's fine (just like Seneca said). I'm wet and slightly uncomfortable, but I'm fine.
I recognize that fear has it's place, but next time you find yourself avoiding something, play the wort-case scenario game. You just might find yourself with a clean butt and a peaceful mind.