I was a child and I was a laughing stock. My own mother made gentle fun of me. I didn’t mind. It was true, after all. I was dead scared of heights. Halfway up the tower of Pershore Cathedral I forced my mother to take me down the tower’s spiral staircase. Embarrassingly against the strong upward flow of visitors eager to get to the top. Lot’s of ‘sorries’ were said that day as gripping my Mum’s hand in the darkness we fought our way down using the narrow part of the spiral to stand on as we went. I was six years old. As long as I could remember I had been scared of heights. My fear, as fears do, grew. I could even make myself dizzy and scared by staring upwards at a tall tree or even a lamppost. By moving my head I could make the tall thing appear to sway, perhaps in the wind. It was enough to make me feel queasy.
I knew this was wrong, but how to cure myself? One day, aged eight, walking in our back garden I saw the wind blowing the upward sprouting branches of a willow back and forth. This was a pollarded willow so the main trunk was split into five or six which towered about forty feet high. Way past my limit. I knew I was able to climb about six feet off the ground, and on technically harder trees than this. All I needed to do was hand on and keep climbing. Even though it had been windy for days, I could see branches weren’t breaking. I knew it was safe, as long as I held on. With great reluctance I climbed the tree, forcing myself upwards almost to the top. What made it easier was being able to cling on with both arms. The vertical branch bent back and forth in the wind like something made of rubber. I clung on for grim death. Rain spattered with the wind into my face.
But just like the cowardly lion who ‘fights’ the moon by jumping into a pond showing its reflection, I found my fears dissolved. This is a fine feeling I told myself and it almost was. What pleased me was the feeling of achievement. I had beaten my fear of heights.
A few years later I took up rock climbing and thought myself immune to any kind of fear relating to high places. But twenty years after stopping rock climbing I found I’d get a bit nervous, a little quakey whenever I got near the edge of a cliff, or in the glass bottomed part of a car on the London Eye. The old fear was coming back. On my next cliff walk I deliberately went close to the edge, looking down and controlling any fear, forcing myself to both pay attention to what was there and ignore what was in my head. And it worked again. I found a little bit of ‘height therapy’ cured me for about a year, an indication that fears can grow like weeds unless tended to from time to time.
Combat negative emotions.
Curing myself of a fear of heights started a life long interest in mental toughness. For a while it was confused in my mind with physical toughness. Until I met physically tough and strong people who did not have much mental toughness. Not that there isn’t a strong connection between the two, it’s just a little more complicated; being a rugby playing member of the SAS in no way guarantees your mental toughness.
Mental toughness is connected in the main with combating fear. But I have realised this is too limited. Mental toughness is concerned with corralling ALL negative emotions. Greed. Envy. Inaction. Discomfort. Reluctance. Procrastination. Complaining. Self-pity. Anger. Sadness. Hysteria. Ingratitude. Feeling of being insulted. Ignored. Laughed at. Mocked. Indecisive.
Things happen in our heads. Some we want to happen. Some we don’t. We may suffer from recurring images of a distressing kind after seeing a road accident. This is one kind of mental event we may not want. We may feel intense self-pity after failing an exam. We may dwell on how we have been slighted by a former friend. Though we suppress the former, these last two we may not fight against. In a world that encourages us to ‘let go’ we may believe any mental event is ‘us’, something we are stuck with. But I’ve found, as people in the past found, if we allow ourselves to feel negative emotions, if we allow ourselves to be outraged, insulted, or to be fearful and indecisive- then we become those things. Little by little.
Many of the things we allow to invade our thinking processes are of no use to us. In fact they are positively malignant. I have friends who used to fly everywhere when they were young. But now they are too scared to fly. Partly it is a control issue- they hate being in the hands of someone else (which explains the fear of the dentist some find grows as they get older) – but partly it is allowing good old fear to get the upper hand. If you let it get out of hand then you may have a real fight on your hands. Your fear may become a phobia. But the cure is always the same. Little by little you have to nibble away at it, keep the weed from strangling the garden.
You will be vastly helped by taking on board the idea of mental toughness. What do I mean by this? Well, for years I have heard the phrase many many times. Did it stop me whinging, being ungrateful, reluctant, prone to anger and mild depression? Not a bit of it. I assumed these things were all part of ‘me’. Only after hearing the clarion call 101 times did I start to root out the weeds using the mantra of ‘mental toughness’.
Of course one still experiences emotions that one may rather not experience. A flash of anger, a surge of the desire to give up. But the process now is to observe these emotions and then ‘click’ reset the dashboard so to speak, click back to a more focused level, use concentration on the task at hand to drive past the boredom, fear or distaste. Suck it up as the phrase goes.
So how do you suck it up? And how do you get to take seriously the 101 st time you are admonished to be ‘strong’ or ‘toughen up’- or the one a friend particularly dislikes ‘man up’. How do you get past what looks like a cliché to the real thing it masks?
It isn’t easy. It could take years of effort. But the first step is taking the concept seriously.
I have a friend who suffered from mild depression. He went to a cognitive behavioural therapist who asked him to describe his day. He was a writer who worked in a local library. He’d get up, read the papers, curse about the state of the world, ride along a busy road, curse about the state of the traffic and weather, arrive at the dingy library- and usually suffer an hour or two of writer’s block. After squeezing out a few hundred words he’d ride home, curse the dangerous driving and then listen to the radio and TV all evening watching the news and berating the terrible state of the world. Was it so very surprising he began to feel unhappy? The therapist pointed out he had ‘poor mental hygeine’. Imagine if you never washed your hands, handled every dog turd and piece of roadkill you saw, licked them and then complained you were feeling ill? It’s the same with our thoughts. You can’t spend all day telling yourself that something is terrible and unresolvable without feeling sad and hopeless yourself. You have to put a block on it. The instinct is to avoid. And avoiding works, for a while. But you can’t hide from this world.
Let’s take a moment to look at the hiders.
For years I was a hider. It may be the halfway house to mental toughness. I’m not sure. At least it’s a little better than giving into negative emotions completely. Hiders understand that there is a lot of negativity in the world. Read a paper and if you have any imagination it can be distressing- thousands dead in a tsunami, people shelled in Gaza, troops and civilians murdered in Afghanistan- there is no end to bad news. Hiders know that this stuff makes them feel bad and agitated. So they hide from it. They don’t read or watch the news. They don’t talk about it.
Hiding can take over your life. I know one chap who moved to South Island New Zealand because he wanted his children to grow up in a place that was like England in the 1960s.
People move into the countryside and live off the land, avoiding the food and the lifestyles of people who live in towns. It’s very seductive. I even thought seriously about doing it.
But it’s hiding. And you can’t hide forever.
In the end hiders become bitter. They resent the world, the way it is ‘changing for the worse’. The world changes. That’s all we can say from our limited perspective. Some things get better, some worse. But hiders, because they are not practising mental toughness, allow other forms of negativity to flourish instead. By avoiding bad news they erode their ability to shrug it off.
I have a friend who escaped form Iraq many years ago. His sister stayed and only left when Saddam was toppled. He told me of his surprise at discovering how trivial he had become compared to his sister. Little things pissed him off. Trains being late. Expectations overturned. Projects not succeeding. His sister was a picture of cool and serenity. She’d lived though war and destitution. She was mentally tough. She had perspective.
Hiders lose perspective. And they are vulnerable. By hiding from what annoys or scares them, instead of developing mental toughness, they leave their fear and irritation intact- as potential. Trivial events then become the trigger for this latent negativity. Who hasn’t seen the red faced country gent when his ‘paradise’ is invaded in some way- a new shopping development or a ‘fun pub’ in the village. Or the extreme agitation of someone, for whom everything runs on clockwork in their hideaway, when their car fails to start or the pipes freeze.
There is a saying, “Be In the world but not Of the world.” Hiders try to avoid being in the world, and end up being affected by it, so becoming ‘of’ the world.
Boredom and Fear
Though some, like me, are fearful kids, most kids seem pretty brave and outgoing- at first. Then, you can observe the many who gradually get bored with the world. Who, with kids, hasn’t heard the familiar cry “I’m bored! There’s nothing to do here!”
Then, bizarrely, you wake up one day and discover that instead of finding everything dull, you now fear it.
“First boredom, then fear,” wrote Phillip Larkin. How right he was. As a poet he had the perspicacity to see this truth without necessarily being able to do anything about it, or even be motivated to do anything about it.
Boredom is the negative emotion of childhood and adolescence. Give in to it and it multiplies, flourishes. It begins to rewire your operating system from a PRODUCTIVE one- creating, acting, doing to a CONSUMING one which requires entertainment, constant stimulus, passive spectating, medication.
A passive consumer based brain is vulnerable to negativity. With a rewired system you become less convinced of your power to CONTROL your thoughts. Your operating system simply allows any negative emotion to sit there and multiply since you have no HABIT of taking action against unwanted thoughts. FEAR is a core negative emotion. It can be communicated like a virus from others. It can be picked up from watching TV or reading the newspapers (which is why HIDERS avoid these activities). And if you don’t root it out fear will grow, year after year. Many writers, I have discovered informally, fear flying. Writers live in a world they can largely control themselves. They can make it very cosy and comfortable. This allows them to write, but, unless they have developed mental toughness, it also allows negative emotions an undisturbed plot in which to grow.
Fear, unchecked, unrooted out, unscorned- will grow. We live in a safety-crazy culture. I am all for taking precautions when doing something dangerous- ie. looking where I am going and avoiding things I am untrained or unable to do, but I find it ludicrous that special fences should be erected on mountains to make them ‘safer’ for walkers. Of course we live in litigious times and no one wants to be sued. Be that as it may- the end result is that it becomes normal to be scared of many things our forebears took as safe.
When I visited a tribe in Borneo it involved crossing a bridge across a high river on three bendy pieces of bamboo. I was pretty unnerved. When I got to the village I saw they actually had a washing machine- which someone had carried on their back across that tiny bendy bridge (and a generator too one presumes). These people were like we were a few generations back before we began to molly coddle ourselves with flat roads and escalators. Don’t get me wrong, this is no rant against modernity- I am merely pointing out that the present culture is one in which fearful behaviour is condoned – partly because it makes a profit for insurance companies, health companies and road building companies!
It’s important to understand when elements in our culture work against us. Fear based living provides a perfect environment for fears to multiply. The exercise of mental toughness can identify and root out such negativity before it takes a hold so completely you become effectively an invalid. One writer I know cannot go abroad on holiday with his family because of his ‘fear’ of flying. Yet as a young man he flew all round the world. What happened? Letting fear lie undisturbed for years happened.