I went in to the 10th annual Gregg Gilder Memorial Firewalk on Saturday a skeptic.
How hot could the smoldering fire possibly be (1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, it turns out), and isn’t there some law of physics that would keep me from getting burned?
But as the flames burned, so did my apprehension. This was real.
Dave Tuscany, the certified firewalk instructor, proved how real it was many times over. He led a group of 50 or so people at Common Grounds in Oberlin through an emotional journey by having them confront their fears in different ways. People walked over broken glass, they chopped slabs of wood with their fists, they broke arrows with their necks and made steel rods bend against their necks.
But as Tuscany would say over and over, it wasn’t about the fire, or the wood, or the arrows or the steel rods, it was about the story you told yourself about fear.
“If I do my job right, you’ll leave here different in some way,” he said.
People told stories about their fear. One man brought me to tears when he spoke about his Alzheimer’s and how he was scared of losing his memories and losing himself. A woman talked about the fear of her husband’s cancer returning. In each instance he made them reframe that story to be something positive. They would acknowledge their fear and use it to be braver, stronger, more open and vulnerable.
I tend to think of myself as someone who is good at confronting fear. I’ve jumped out of a plane, over cliffs, traveled alone in several countries, been zip-lining, parasailing, skinny dipping and twice moved across the country with not much more than a suitcase.
Yet something Tuscany said began to get to me.
“Our relationship with fear changes when we simply acknowledge that we have it.”
This year both of my parents are facing serious health issues and one thing I haven’t confronted is my fear toward them growing older. Tuscany said death is one of the things we are born with a fear of, but watching my parents age, as I’m sure many can relate to, brings that fear to the forefront.
“Feel the fear and do it anyway,” Tuscany said. If you don’t acknowledge the fear, he said, you allow it to grow and metastasize and take over.
My heart pounded as I approached the coals. Someone was beating on a drum as everyone took their steps over the smoldering embers, but as I stared down the path in front of me all background noise faded. I repeated the mantra I had made up moments before: My fear will not kill me.
Fear, as Tuscany told us, stands for “False Evidence Appears Real.”
What would happen if I acknowledged my fear about my aging parents? I was scared of even asking the question.
In the week leading up to the firewalk, “fear” didn’t even enter my mind; I dismissed easily the idea that it was even a scary thing to do. But walking through the fire very quickly and truth be told, somewhat painfully, taught me that fear was not to be ignored. It was as real and impactful as the fire under my feet.
The story I was telling myself was that if I admitted I had fear, I would seem weak, and like I said above, I pride myself on being able to confront fear. Tuscany and his guidance let me know that I could both admit fear and learn from it, grow from it and be better for it. In walking over the fire, I agreed to stop telling myself a story that being scared could hold me back and embraced the fear to push me forward.