Ambrose Redmoon is credited with saying that “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” A recent article and video on NYTimes.com beautifully illustrated this truth. The piece features Attis Clopton, who had an intense fear of water. He decided he wanted to conquer his longstanding fear, and so worked with a swim coach to do just that.
Many things stood out to me from watching the video, given the work that I do. First, Attis Clopton had had traumatic experiences with water, and his solution was to avoid water and the fear that came with it. Like Attis, we’re all wounded during our lives in various ways, and we make compromises to keep going. We might avoid certain situations, guard ourselves in relationships, use drugs or alcohol to cope, or cling to a sense of control. These compromises can work, and then at some point may stop working, or not be worth what they cost. Attis finally reached a point where he realized he was alive but wasn’t truly living his life. He knew he had to change.
This need to change provided the motivation that Attis needed. Whenever we make big changes in our lives there inevitably comes a point when we think that maybe the old way, the “safe” way, really wasn’t so bad. At these times we can remind ourselves of why we wanted to change in the first place. Why were we not content to leave things as they were? And what’s on the other side of our fears? For Attis, facing his fear was a huge challenge, so there had to be compelling reasons to stay in the water when he really wanted to flee.
Attis also needed to experience the water, and it was his experience that changed him. It wouldn’t have been enough simply to be told that “water isn’t always dangerous.” That intellectual understanding could only take him so far. What got him over his fears was moving through them. Nothing is more powerful than our actual experience of successfully doing what we’re afraid of.
In many ways Attis’s instructor was like a good exposure therapist. She seemed to understand and empathize with his fear, and at the same time wasn’t willing to let him stay there. She also had a program of exercises that were gradual and systematic, with later steps building on earlier ones–just like we do in exposure therapy.
Once Attis had overcome his fears, he still had a lot of work to do. Even though he was no longer afraid, he didn’t know how to swim. I often find something similar in my clinical work–after the symptoms are under control, there’s still the task of creating the kind of life that the person wants. For example, overwhelming social anxiety can lead to a stunted career in addition to impoverished relationships; after successful treatment, a person has the challenge and the opportunity to build a better life.
Every time we decide it’s worth it to face our fears, we allow our lives to expand. And with that expansion comes freedom–the freedom to live lives that we value, to share love with close others, to face life with all its beauty and uncertainty. The image of Attis Clopton swimming in the ocean perfectly captures that sense of freedom in letting go. We can decide as often as we need to that freedom is worth more than our fears.
The article and video are found here.