wilderness-collective-fear[row] [col_5]

[F]ear found me in my mid-twenties. I was living in North Carolina and racing mountain bikes. Cross country, expert men 25-29. Lots of training hours and lots of cash just to win a water bottle, but it kept me fit and was more fun than I thought I could have. I was on a training ride in West Virginia, and my heart rate monitor told me I wasn’t cooling down properly. I was staying at 150BPM with no output. So I stopped completely and went to 160BPM. And I found my mind racing, fixating on my pounding heart, as I started to lose consciousness. An ambulance was called and I was taken to a local emergency room where I stayed for hours and was tested in every way possible. The conclusion was I had had a panic attack, and I was sent on my way.

Over the next six months I had between 3 and 15 panic attacks a day, every day. The relationship I was in ended, I was fired, and I became agoraphobic. I stopped riding and training. I hid in my condo, and read everything I could find on the subject. I tried yoga, meditation, guided imagery, anti-anxiety medication, and prayer. In total panic – literally – I scheduled an appointment with the sports psychologist I had worked with while racing. He listened patiently and did some breathing and relaxation exercises with me. Trying to talk me off the ledge. Near the end of our hour we hadn’t made much progress, and I was dreading leaving his office and facing another night of isolation and the awareness that I was having a heart attack and would be dead in a few minutes. This doctor, he was a nice guy, but everyone has a limit. I’m stalling, telling him it feels like I’m dying, and he finally yells – actually yells – ‘You are dying! We all are. The trick is to get shit done before you do.’

Never underestimate the value of a good ass kicking.

There is much to fear in this life. The basics – death, pain, and loss. The philosophical – fear of the unknown, fear of meaninglessness, existential crisis. The esoteric – fear of disappointing people we care about, fear of not being able to sustain success, fear of not being who we think we are. We live in a chaotic, bombastic, high-speed, wealth obsessed, appearance obsessed, youth obsessed culture. I grew up with constant talk of imminent nuclear war, and kids today grow up in a world of never ending war and school shootings. In another life I was in marketing, and marketing teaches us there are 2 ways to sell something – greed and fear. Of the two, fear is the more powerful because it’s more visceral and more difficult to control. Fear is everywhere. It’s pervasive, and insidious, and contagious. Fear is nothing to be taken lightly. If ignored it will grow like a weed and cause breathtaking destruction.

When I left my doctor’s office I had all the fear I had taken in with me, and starting that day I added to it in every way possible. I made the choice – logic isn’t always logical – to give myself something to be afraid of. From then till now it’s been sport bikes and baja bikes and downhill mountain bikes. Lots of solo third world travel.



Solo mountaineering trips, and solo point to point alpine touring trips, and solo trips anywhere I see that looks interesting. And in the context of all that scary business, I find that at the end of the day – having been terrified for hours – I lie down and sleep like a baby. I can see clearly what it is I’m afraid of, and when I step away from the source of my fear I have nothing to be afraid of.

All fear comes down to one fear, and that is the fear of death. Dying has so many implications beyond the actual ending of our physical existence. When we die, what about all the things we haven’t accomplished? What if we haven’t built our legacy into what we think it should be? What will my girl do? Will she be OK? What about my kids? And where will my soul go? What happens to me after I die?

All fear is fear of death, because without death, we have unlimited time and opportunity to accomplish anything we wish. Procrastination is only a vice in the context of the ticking clock we’re all subject to. Without death we don’t need to wonder what comes after, and fear that awe inspiring unknown beyond.

But we all know we’re going to die someday; every single one of us. Every intelligent man must accept this, and having accepted it, must realize nothing that happens to every one of us can be all that bad. Whether our universe is the clockwork of God, or a random event, or some unknown other, this unifying process of death is applied equally to all, and if nothing else, that makes it fair.

Me personally, I don’t fear losing material things anymore. I lost all of them, and I was fine. Better in some ways. I don’t have a fear of failure anymore, having failed spectacularly in a flameout of biblical proportions. What will my girl do if I die? She’ll do what girls who lose their man have been doing for 10,000 years; she’ll move on and meet another man. I don’t have kids, but if I did they’d be fine. Kids have lost their fathers since time began, and the world has done all right.

And what about all the things I haven’t accomplished before I die? What about that grand plan I had? Well, after I’m dead I’ll be dead, so I most likely won’t sweat that anymore. And my legacy, and my name, and my achievements? That will all be forgotten and lost to memory within 2 or 3 generations, just like it is for everyone else.

Accept the reality of your own inevitable death. Accept that the world and your people will do just fine without you. Stop letting fear distract you. Stop letting your fear of something that cannot be avoided be your excuse for avoiding things that need attention. This life is short, and you’ll be dead for a long, long time. So use the time you have, and get about the business of living.

Step 1 – Find the thing you are most afraid of and kick it right in the teeth. A swig or two of your favorite adult beverage may help.

Step 2 – Repeat



Words and photo by: William Johnston