Someone once said “Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” A lot of people have fears, but I once thought that being fearless is something to praise upon. But is it really? Or is the ability to act in the presence of fear something greater? Some people fear heights, others rejection, and some people fear water. But all these fears are rational because they all do come with some sort of risk, whether it be physical or emotional; humans aren’t invincible. I once feared driving on a freeway, but over time, that fear has seemed to fade, but the risk associated with driving a car hasn’t faded any less, so why do I not fear this anymore? I would say it comes from confidence in the assessment that my skills are adequate and getting from point A to point B is more important than that fear. I know people who are afraid of water or diving, which is an activity that is important to who I am. There is risk associated with diving every day. Especially when you’re 20 meters under the water with two atmospheres of pressure upon you and your life depends on a short hose attached to a tank delivering oxygen. I will confess that every time I get in the water, I think about this risk and have some fear, but it never stops me from doing what I love and seeing things under the surface that many people never see.
This past week I have been trying to reflect on why I have an absence of fear when fear “should” be present. I say that with the awareness that what something should be is only a perception of societal norms and doesn’t actually reflect what is true or just in a particular situation for an individual. I realize that venturing out onto the ocean alone in a small vessel comes with great risk because, as much as I wish this wasn’t true, water is not our natural element. I am reminded of this every time I go out on the water and understand that there is always a risk of drowning or hypothermia. I used to think that I didn’t need to think about this because I knew how to swim, but then I lost a dear friend to water, who reminded me that we can never escape risk. The summer following losing my friend, I couldn’t enter water without becoming overcome by fear. Eventually I became inspired by the courage of another friend who instead became lifeguard trained and stood up to this fear. That takes courage. Four years ago I didn’t have this courage, but I have the choice now to realize that fear doesn’t need to overpower all thoughts. Fear is healthy and a natural instinct that keeps us safe.
Last week I ventured out on the water alone to take water samples as part of my research from the side of a kayak. I acknowledged the fear that the ocean is vast and I am small, therefore it has the power to both create and destroy life. I have grown up with a strong tie to water and appreciation for it, therefore I thought that fear should be irrational, and pushed it aside and carried on. While sampling, the winds on the water had started to pick up and I realized that a current pushing me away from home base had begun to form, therefore I decided to abandon sampling and head back. It had taken me over an hour to get to the point where I turned around, but as I tried paddling back, it took almost two hours to go half the distance. Yes, I was pacing myself to ensure I wouldn’t overwork myself to exhaustion, but I was still confident that I could make it back. I had been paddling quite far offshore to avoid the surf, but I began to notice I was being pushed toward shore and began having trouble controlling myself as I was near a rocky point with large crashing waves. It crossed my mind that if I lost control and got caught in the surf around the point, I would be slammed into the rocks and most likely seriously harmed. However, for some reason I do not remember feeling fear in this moment. I was calm and continued paddling. I did, however, decide that I should try to beach the boat and call for help, so I called for help, told someone where I was, and they started on their way to come get me. By this point, I had cleared the rocky point, but began being swept into a cove by surge and current. Still calm, I thought everything would be okay and there was nothing to raise alarm about. I had someone coming to pick me up—I just needed to get to the shore safely. At that moment, I looked over my shoulder and heard a swell beginning to break. I saw it crashing three meters from me and coming my way. In that split second, I knew I would capsize but I don’t remember fear being on my mind. I was overcome with remorse for the fact that I had misjudged the danger I had been in and put myself in. I went toppling over the side as the boat capsized. My PFD inflated immediately upon impact. The boat remained flipped; thankfully I had tied down mostly everything in the boat. Before taking the kayak on a real excursion, I had practiced flipping it from in the water, so I was able to right the boat and most of my equipment was still attached. Other things such as my paddle and a few other things were made of plastic and floated. I pulled the kayak and swam to shore and waited for everything else to wash up with the surf. The cooler I brought for the water samples had come open and released all the bottles into the water. All in all, I saved everything except for two things: the sunglasses I was wearing and my cell phone I had used to call for help. A man nearby helped me gather everything and pull the kayak up the beach. He waited with me for my friend to pick me up, but he spoke little English and I spoke little Portuguese so few words were exchanged other than a thank you. I spent the time reflecting and going over every possible scenario in my head as to how things could have gone better. I had put myself in a lot of danger by either suppressing or ignoring fear, which led me to not call for help sooner.
I realize now that what’s done is done. There was no way to know the weather was going to get bad sooner than predicted, and no way to go back and change what happened. What’s important is that I am okay. One thing that probably helped is the fact that I did remain calm and had practiced safety skills beforehand and prepared for something possibly going wrong. I would say that I was physically prepared, but not emotionally prepared for something to go wrong. I’m so thankful to have so many friends here in Mozambique that have helped me and such caring friends and family back home that have helped me through this. I was able to purchase a new phone in Mozambique, but I wouldn’t have been able to purchase a new life if something had happened to me.
Three days after the incident, I headed out on a dive going past where I had capsized. Initially, I felt as if I should have fear about re-experiencing what had happened in my mind. I saw the waves crashing on the point where I could have hit and couldn’t escape being reminded of what could have been. But holding onto that fear would hold me back if I let it consume me. I thought back to my friend who had instead of fearing water like I had, faced it by training herself as a lifeguard to keep others safe in the water. This time, I won’t let the fear of what could have happened keep me from finding out what would happen if I didn’t let it go. Overall, I realize that it isn’t about not having fear, but rather, not letting that fear stop you from seeing what is important. Water is important to me, and I won’t let anything stand in the way of that.