The danger of fear

Sometimes the small fears – like what might be in this glass – hold us back from what matters most when we travel.

We’ve been looking at the issue of traveling dangerously and the impact that going to locations of profound suffering can have on us. I think most of us retain an idealized part of ourselves that tells us we should go to such places, make a difference and be changed. The only problem is that the less-than-idealized parts of us come up with some pretty convincing arguments as to why staying home or going to the beach make more sense.

I know that for me, comfort gets me in a half-Nelson and starts applying pressure whenever I even think of going somewhere challenging. But comfort is a pushover compared to the one thing that holds me back most: fear.

I wish it were something heroic such as the fear of being dismembered at the hands of terrorists or being kidnapped by guerillas or crashing in a fiery ball of jet fuel. But those fears are too abstract for me. I get more concerned about the really important things like being embarrassed, looking stupid or getting sick. Even though I’ve experienced all those things and have survived, I still have this worry that the next time is going to be the really bad one. And so I too often avoid engaging situations on trips that I know I should.

But not always.

Several years ago, I was in one of those difficult places of suffering, a large slum outside of Mexico City. I was there with both locals and some other foreigners learning about the needs of the community and observing the amazing efforts that people there were making to raise themselves out of poverty.

At one point, I was invited to the house of a local family to hear firsthand about their situation. I went with a local colleague who translated. We walked into one of the nicer homes there in the slum: this one had cinder block walls and a well-swept concrete slab for a floor. A family of five lived within the ten foot by ten foot confines.

After we made introductions, the wife uncovered a bottle of 7-Up. It was clear this was reserved for special occasions and while I wanted to protest that she shouldn’t open this on my account, I knew better.

The woman had a plastic bucket half filled with water that she obtained from the one water source a few blocks away. She then took four plastic cups, one for her, her husband, my colleague and me, rinsed them in the water, loosely shook them dry, then poured the prized soft drink into each cup. That is when my old traveling companion fear decided to speak up.

I knew the quality of that water and all that it likely contained. I knew that much of it remained in the cup. But I also knew that I had a choice: graciously receive the offered drink or give into the fear of getting sick. So I prayed a quick prayer of protection, accepted the cup and swallowed the 7-Up, the remains of the water and my fear all at the same time.

And I never got sick.

We rarely do. Hardly ever do the things we fear most on trips come to pass. And yet these often silly fears hold us back from so much of life.

What are your greatest fears about travel? Is this the year you stop listening to them and do something bold, maybe even dangerous? Why not try something adventurous and see what actually happens instead of worrying about what might. You will never know what lies on the other side of your fears into you cross them.

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