October 5, 2022

Managing Fear and Risk

 One of the elements of rock climbing I value most is the forced management of fear. For most people and definitely for me, it is scary to be up high without flat ground below, facing possible free falls. Bravery in this context, and probably in most areas, isn’t about just ignoring those risks and continuing onwards. It requires understanding your abilities, and predicting what will happen if you are either wrong about what you can do or if something else interferes with your execution. It requires understanding your environment, and gathering data about what is above and below. I love projecting, where you return to the climb over and over until you can do it without stopping or falling. To accomplish that, you have to be okay with taking the falls needed to keep trying the movements. Some might say comfortable, but I’m not someone who feels totally fine falling. No matter how much I do it, it still scares me. Climbing hasn’t taught me to be less scared. It’s given me the patience and techniques to breathe in the face of fear, and mentally and physically push forward when I’ve assessed the reward of completion versus the risk of falling. 

It’s helped me be brave in many other areas of life, making my default motions either deliberate movement or calculated stillness. Feelings of stuckness pepper my periods of life, because in real and ideal life, we become enmeshed in the mundane sameness and we stop before the new and unknown. But climbing has given me the confidence that we have power, that we can make intelligent decisions about the complex mix of what we can and can’t control, and that so much of fear is irrational and limiting. 

Ever since we learned that we were going to have a child, I’ve thought a lot about how motherhood will change my management of fear. Watching many others around me raise children, I often think that I’d do things differently, while knowing that so much changes when you actually become a parent. Rooted in the philosophy of embracing discomfort and pushing through illogical worries, I don’t really understand when people worry about what appear to me to be safe situations. I don’t get why parents don’t want to leave their kids overnight or for a weekend. I’m surprised to learn that many people don’t leave their kids to travel until they are two years or older. During COVID, I didn’t understand keeping kids out of school when the risk of illness was so low compared to the risk of desocialization. I mostly keep these thoughts to myself because I know I’m not in the same position, and talking about children in general is different from talking about your own child. I have no idea what position I’ll actually take when the time comes. As much as I hope that my experiences have trained me to continue taking worthwhile risks for both myself and our son, pregnancy has already introduced me to the biological power of hormones.

When I was six weeks pregnant, we were on our honeymoon in Norway, which had been planned primarily as a climbing trip. I continued to climb, taking care to only climb routes where I felt comfortable enough that I wouldn’t fall. At the same time, I didn’t want to give up the feeling of pushing myself, so I also did routes that felt hard for me but provided adequate protection such that I knew risk was minimal. Even then, my fear was heightened by what I was carrying. I knew this was reasonable, because even as the risk remained low, the consequences were more serious. And that changes the balance of risk and reward. 

The problem arises when the fear overwhelms the fulcrum so much that the emotion stalls all else. On one climb, I found myself freezing in a way I never have before. I didn’t feel confident about my ability to continue up, and I was very anxious about coming down. So I just glued myself into my current position, which while secure didn’t feel like it to me, and I had no idea what to do. My husband was only maybe 15 feet below me and in his kind, calm way tried to talk me through it, but I told him to be quiet and burst into tears. 

I’ve never cried while climbing before. I have been terrified, but not to the point of tears. Not when our rope got stuck as we were coming down a climb, leaving us stranded hundreds of feet in the air for several hours. Not when I’d fallen, hit a ledge, and broke my ankle. Not when I’d climbed too far above my last protection and couldn’t see where I’d next be able to place gear, facing a treacherous free fall if I slipped. Not when a rock came loose in my hand, taking out my gear and causing a thirty foot fall that bruised me all over. In those situations, I breathed and re-assessed and stabilized.

But here, in a fairly safe position, I crumpled. I lost all capacity to work through the situation and decide what would be logical. I understand the need to protect the life in me at all costs, but it is jarring to feel the costs in such a visceral way. I know that people will say I shouldn’t have put myself in this position, but I would reiterate that it was a safe one; it just didn’t feel that way to my hormone-infused mind. 

And so, now mid-way through my pregnancy, I am considering how to sift through what is hyper-stimulation of my protective instincts and what is the real balance between risk and reward. It’s for this reason that I want to continue climbing, and lead-climbing, for as long as it feels comfortable and safe to me because I am the best judge of this. I don’t want to lose all the bounty and stretching of boundaries that managing fear has gifted me, and I wouldn’t want our child to miss out on that either. I also know that new tears are inevitable, and I will try to welcome those as a way to engage in the wild complexity of our emotions. I don’t have definite answers now, and doubt that the chaos of early parenthood will bring sudden clarity, but I am prepared to immerse myself in the conflict.  

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