“Fear has its use but cowardice has none.” ~Gandhi
On Monday, my boyfriend and I took a ferry to Catalina Island, where we planned to spend the night.
I knew the island would be quaint and charming, which was a big part of its appeal, but I was mostly looking forward to breathing in the salty ocean air.
From vacations enjoyed with beachside lounging, to summer days spent running along the shore, some of my favorite memories involve the hypnotic lilt of crashing waves.
We hightailed it to the upper deck as soon as we dropped our bags, allowing ourselves the best possible view of any jumping dolphins we might encounter.
It wasn’t long before we picked up some speed, but this didn’t deter me from sticking my face into the wind.
I imagined that was what dogs feel like when they poke their heads outside car windows—completely enveloped by the cool, crisp breeze; wrapped in it and yet so free.
Thirty minutes and ten dolphin sightings in, though still windblown, I felt my cheeks go warm and flush as I giggled, “I love the ocean!”
It was the kind of pure joy that comes being fully present, clearheaded, and immersed in nature—magnified because I was sharing it with someone I love.
Three hours later, after we’d checked into our hotel and eaten lunch, I thought, “I hate the ocean.”
We’d decided to go snorkeling, something my boyfriend loves, and, theoretically, I thought I’d enjoy.
Nemo-like fish, machine-free exercise, and exploration are all things I appreciate. And we’d done it together once before in San Diego, a few months after we’d first started dating.
But back then we’d stayed in shallow water, much like I do when I swim at beach. By “swim” I mean wade out to my waist, all the while fearing death by shark.
I only possess one real fear that doesn’t involve a horrific death—the fear of being judged and rejected. Aside from that, it all comes down to catastrophic, fatal bodily harm—falling off a skyscraper, being mauled by a shark, being mauled by a tiger, being mauled by a lion.
(The mauling fears are practically endless, most likely because I first saw Jaws before I could even speak.)
Somehow when I got into the water, armed with flippers, a snorkel, a mask, and adrenaline, I forgot I wasn’t a fish. It wasn’t until I looked down and recognized I’d swum beyond the point of standing that I started freaking out.
Suddenly I worried that I might turn around, see a dark mass, and realize I had no time to escape the razor-like teeth of an approaching Great White.
Every stroke after that took a Herculean effort. If I kept stride with my boyfriend, I’d continually move away from the safety of land.
If I turned around, I’d decrease my odds of death by ingestion, but I still couldn’t be certain I’d make it safely to the sand.
I felt trapped in the middle of the dark abyss I’d just recently professed to love. It seemed a lot more beautiful when I was safely removed.
I didn’t want to leave my boyfriend alone, partly because I wanted to continue sharing the adventure, and partly because I wanted to be there for him if he needed rescuing (because clearly I’d be a great help if a hungry sea creature pulled him under the water).
Paralyzed as I was with internal conflict, I decided to do what I’d come out there to do: explore and discover.
First I reminded myself that, statistically, I was more likely to be hit by lightning than be eaten by a shark—particularly so close to the shore (the water was actually less than ten feet deep). Then I started thinking about this dichotomy of fear and love.
So frequently we read that we need to choose one or the other, and we’re best served to choose the latter.
But everything worthwhile in life entails a natural ebb and flow between the two.
We may feel scared when we first meet someone admirable and intriguing. We may feel terrified when we first attempt something new and exciting. We may feel panicked when first try something different and unproven.
The fear isn’t a sign of negativity or weakness; it’s a sign of how much we care. In a way, fear can deepen joy, passion, and love, if we learn from it and find the courage to act in spite of it.
Oftentimes, the payoff is that much sweeter because of the journey that brought us to it.
It’s the spark of a burgeoning relationship that took courage to initiate; the light of a growing passion that took boldness to pursue; or, in my case, the bliss and freedom of lilting with the waves when it felt far safer to admire them from afar.
Maybe the spark we feel when we stretch ourselves is all the brighter because it entailed a direct path through the fear.
Perhaps it’s not just the freedom and joy we crave, but the strength and insight we gain by pushing ourselves to discover them.
I love the ocean, I fear the ocean, and I know there’s always a little risk whenever you leave the shore.
But I’ve realized the shore only feels safe because it seems more predictable—and of course it isn’t. Life is always uncontrollable. Fear is a natural reaction to that.
Joy, love, and passion—these are what we feel when we take the plunge anyways, knowing we’re brave enough to accept the risk.
Photo by Ivan McClellan.