We were sitting down eating ceviche at a corner cafe. Ceviche is one of the local specialties that they’re very proud of in Lima, but it is different from the tidy little bowl of assorted lime-cured seafood you find in the states. They pile on big fatty chunks of briny fish and monstrous tentacles jutting every which way. It was rough on the stomach bug I’d been battling for days, the type customary to new gringos, but it was a rite of passage.
Ivan had taken us here and was talking to Ben rapidly in Spanish. Ben’s face lit up excitedly and he turned to me, “Ivan said he found you a pro fight at the end of March.” I choked a bit on a slimy tentacle. “That’s awesome…that’s uh great,” I gasped out.
I felt like I’d already been punched in the stomach. My abs tightened, my fists clenched, and my pulse quickened instinctually. My mind began playing a bloody montage of flying fists and elbows. I could feel my heart beat in my throat as I sat there and acted excited. I, however, was scared shitless.
I wasn’t scared of losing – I had made my peace with that long ago. It was a simultaneously existential and primal fear. Question and answer. What did I get myself into? The answer caught me with a quick blow to the gut.
I had been in Peru about a week and had pestered Ben nonstop, “Tell Ivan to get me a fight as soon as possible. I want to get out there!” I knew the IFC had a promotion in March and I begged him to get me on the fight card. I’ve always followed the philosophy that you learn best by doing. Even if it’s painful – as this certainly would be – there is no substitute for experience. I’ve always tried to throw myself in the proverbial deep end, knowing I could learn to swim quicker if the alternative was to sink.
This feeling was why I came here in the first place. To experience that fear first hand, to measure myself against the yardstick of adversity. The more I thought about it, fear was a very healthy reaction to my situation. I would actually find it slightly insane to not feel this way.
Fear is simply a natural response to a real or perceived threat. The cavemen who feared the saber-toothed tiger were quicker to pick up spears and lived to pass this trait on. Thankfully nowadays we don’t have giant predators wandering our streets, but we still have this software in our genes.
I remembered reading a piece by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh where he explained how our emotions are fleeting and don’t define us any more than the channels define a TV set. You can flip from one to the next, he said, and your whole existence changes. I am not my fear, I realized, I can respond however I want. That will define me more than anything else.
Without imminent threats to our daily survival, most of us are running on outdated software. So we find other ways to be afraid as our natural impulses run rampant. Maybe you fear not getting that promotion. Or being alone on Valentines Day. I was tired of such trivialities; I wanted to meet the real thing. I wanted to chase fear down the rabbit hole and see if I could not root out its most basic and primal form. Then once I discovered it, I wanted to conquer it.
Imagine a grizzly bear wanders into your campsite. When the half-ton of savage predator charges, they say it takes many high caliber rounds to stop. So you’d better be quick on the trigger. If it wants to eat you, it basically will.
Staying and fighting is out of the question, so the logical alternative is flight. Then again, they can run faster than thoroughbreds, so experts suggest otherwise. You are supposed to stretch your arms up high and wave them. Make loud noises, and if you have pots and pans, bang them together. While fear is the most natural and instinctual state, to let it consume you is to be consumed. Bears sense the fear and see it as weakness, and weakness means lunch.
Life senses weakness too. When fear overcomes you, feel it, recognize it, but don’t run from it. Steady your footing and stand tall. When you find yourself lost in the dark woods of life and Fear creeps in, like two bulging eyeballs in the dark, don’t blink or look away. Stare right back into their depths.