The Nature of Fear (and Courage)

Libby Parker-Simkin - Brazil


April 11, 2014

There are two types of fear: the fast primal type that helps you stay alive, and the slow existential type that keeps you up at night pondering the impending implosion of the universe and all of your insecurities. Both of these types of fear serve a purpose and neither is inherently bad, but they can lead to odd paradigms if unchecked.

The first type of fear is physical and immediate. It’s in the rush of your heartbeat when you wake up after a nightmare, the dizziness you feel when you look down from a high place, the sudden gasp after someone startles you. It’s your sympathetic nervous system warning you that something is wrong and dangerous. The second type is the little voice in your head that goes “but what if…?” It worms it’s way into your habits: checking that your doors are locked, avoiding certain people, refusing to take chances. It’s all of your doubts, insecurities, and preconceptions. This fear is paralytic and it disguises itself so you don’t necessarily realize you’re feeling fear.

“Your daughter is a courageous one.” My host mom told my mother a few weeks ago when she came to visit. My mom looked at me for a moment, and replied “Yes. Yes she is.” I laughed it off as I translated for her. I’m not “courageous.” Courageous people do crazy scary things and take risks and don’t ever feel afraid of anything. That’s not me.

During our January heat wave, my host family and I went to visit some friends at the beach. The ocean was calm, and rope of orange buoys marked off the swimming area from a neighboring boat-mooring area. I had been in the backseat for too long, and the water was perfect, so I started swimming along the line. I got to the third buoy out before my host family started yelling to get my attention. They waved me back, looks of panic on their faces. “What’s wrong?” I asked back on the beach. “Is it dangerous to swim?” No, they told me, but the water was over my head and they were worried. On the way back, I found out that they didn’t know how to swim. “I don’t like it.” My host dad said. “I don’t like swimming.” He’s scared, I realized, looking at his face in the rear view mirror. If I hadn’t been able to swim, he wouldn’t have been able to save me.

A few weeks ago, my host family announced that they are planning a trip to the northeastern city of Recife in May after I leave. “I thought you didn’t like the northeast.” I responded, remembering all the times my host dad had complained about the crime or economy or lack of culture. He blames all of this on large populations of Afro-Brazilians and indigenous people, who he says just don’t like working. I had always asked how he knew that, and pointed out other factors of the problems. “You’ve never been there! How do you know it’s so bad anyway?” I would protest. That he would willingly go somewhere that he has such a negative opinion of was a surprise to me. “Why are you going now?” I asked. “You always say we have to try new things to know for sure whether we like them or not.” He told me. “Besides, at least we speak the language. When you got here you didn’t even speak Portuguese.” This is his adventure, I thought. And then I inspired this.

I went to Joinville’s Carnival parade with my host mom. We had to take the bus, which is something I do on a regular basis, but something my host mom had some trepidation about. We took our seats and as we waited for the bus to leave the terminal, I asked her about the parade. She told me it happens every year and has lots of dancing and costumes and crowds, but she doesn’t usually go. “É uma coisa dos negros.” She said. “That’s a black people thing. ” As I considered how to respond to that she added “I like watching Carnival on TV better.” I asked why, but before she could answer, two darker skinned couples boarded the bus. I felt her tense up beside me. She grabbed my arm, and then in a loud whisper said, “Look, they’re going too!” In that moment, I realized that this was something significantly outside her comfort zone. Taking the bus at night, mingling with non-white strangers, and going to the parade were all things she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to do. I felt an odd surge of proud protectiveness. Good for her, trying new things and facing fears.

What I’ve come to realize is that just as there are different types of fear, there are different types of courage. There’s the type that let’s you ride roller coasters, and the type that let’s you admit that you don’t know how to swim. There’s the type that lends itself to acts of heroism, and the type that lets you try new things and get out of your comfort zone, if only by baby steps, so you can grow as a person. When my host mom called me courageous, she was talking about the softer quieter kind. By courageous, she means doing the things that she is scared of: being alone, talking to strangers, taking the bus. She means that I moved to the other side of the world to live with people I did not know in a country where I did not speak the language. She means that I try new things, that I don’t have the same ingrained fears. She thinks that I’m a tall brash americana with no sense of the impossible. She finds this inspiring. They both do.

Being “courageous” isn’t the same as never being afraid. There have definitely been times over the last six months when I have been scared, nervous, or insecure. Courage is knowing that something will be difficult and doing it anyway.

Eu sou corajosa. I am courageous. And so is my host family.

Libby Parker-Simkin