Fear: Don’t pass it on

I took my first river trip very seriously.

haven-first raft

While my sister in her dorky braces mugged it up and my dad acted like he knew everything I was most likely acting like a little piss ant.

I vaguely remember learning that this one day trip on the Snake River would be all flat water and feeling pretty disappointed. When we went over one riffle I got all excited and said I wanted more of that and that I’d bet rapids would be really fun. My dad immediately shut me down with a scolding of how dangerous whitewater was and that we would NOT be doing any of that. I was convinced he was wrong, but I held my silence, tucking my thoughts away and sulking the rest of the day. Thanks, Dad, for infusing me with your fear and ignorance.

While this sounds like a healthy dose of parent-bashing, the principals really apply to any relationship- friends, partners, kids, students, etc. But our parents are the easiest targets because let’s face it, they have unrestrained access to do the most damage. The damage I’m talking about is passing on an institution of fear.

As an outdoor instructor I’ve seen the difference between kids who were raised to fear snakes and those who just think of them as any other animal that you shouldn’t harass. I’ve also watched friends freak the snot out of their kids by telling them a big scary rapid is coming instead of letting the guide usher them into the fun of getting a cool spray of water to the face. Some of those same parents might have no hesitation letting their kid race around a pump track on a dirt bike where they could just as easily smash their face in. Go figure.

My dad was also afraid of heights and recoiled in fear when I fell in love with alpine climbing in my early 20’s. This was the same man who didn’t blink an eye at setting me free at the ocean’s edge for a month each summer to play and swim alone as long as I came home by sundown.

We fear what we don’t know. We also fear letting someone else explore what we don’t know. Obviously this fear does nobody any good and in the case of our kids it can be crippling. Surely you’ve noticed the Millennials who are terrified to take a hike without a cell phone. And how many parents do you know of who steered their kids away from dream careers because they were afraid to see them fail?

Worst of all is growing up afraid of something and not even understanding why. It makes sense that Dad was scared of me climbing because of his own fear of heights. But I’m not afraid of heights. I have no idea where his fear of whitewater rivers came from, but his insistence about it kept me off of them for years.

Once in a while, while scouting a rapid or tying into the sharp end, I have to check in to ask myself if the fears in my head are even my own, or if they were put there by my dad or someone else. Was my fear taught or inherited? It drives me a little crazy to think that could be true.


In grappling with a lot of fears the past couple years in whitewater kayaking I’ve been on a mission to force myself to figure out how to deal with it. Ultimately that leads to the question of origin. What am I afraid of and why? Okay, so worst case scenario: I might take a lead fall and a piece could blow out and I’ll hit the deck and get really messed up. Am I afraid of that happening? Yes. Do I think that will happen? No. Will doing this ultimately bring me great pleasure? Yes. Those are better odds than getting in a car to commute every day.

When I think about managing my fear, knowing if it stems from my own gut or a repeat  recording in my head can make all the difference in setting it aside. I definitely know when my own gut tells me to portage a high risk to fun ratio rapid. But when I’m just sitting on the fence of fear and indecisiveness without knowing why, nobody wins.

My own fears are enough for me to manage, thank you. No need to sell me yours too. Now that I’m learning to identify the difference it makes it easier to let go of something that wasn’t mine to begin with.


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