I’m in a bathing suit, and people are laughing. Oh, this can’t be good. The sun was a spotlight on the diving board. It must be twenty degrees hotter up here, I thought. My forehead was sweaty, and, come to think of it, so was everything else. I bent over. The image of Tiffany Chin skating her 1987 U. S. Nationals long program with a wedgie in her blue Lycra costume flitted through my head. I dug my toes into the nubby wet board and tried to get a grip on my own situation. Do I have a wedgie? I don’t think so. With my arms stretched overhead, I tucked my chin and swallowed at the same time, which made me want to cough. Don’t cough! Don’t fall in! The board was wobbling. Ergo, my thighs were wobbling. Great. A line of teens jostled one another behind me. Were they watching me? I wasn’t sure. The water below looked cold and deep. I closed my eyes. I’m almost forty years old. Lord, help me. I don’t know what I’m doing.
In the story of my life there are many times when I did not, literally or
metaphorically, dive in. I was raised by Chinese immigrant parents
who wanted my sister and me to excel in school, succeed in our careers.
In my mind, that meant focusing on things I was good at (reading and
writing, pioneer crafting) and avoiding areas where I might fall short
(most everything else). I was not only afraid of failing, but I was afraid
of the fear I would feel while trying not to fail. Afraid of feeling fear
Diving into a swimming pool, with its associated risks of belly
flops, drowning, and public humiliation, was something I had successfully
avoided all my life. Until now.
My husband and I have two daughters, Gigi and Ruby. Gigi was
eight years old and scared to jump off the diving board at camp. “Go
ahead, try it, don’t worry what everyone else thinks, you’ll be fine!” I
said, praying for her not to ask the obvious: “Mommy, do you dive?”
Ruby, then three years old, was already asking why everyone in the
family had a bike helmet but Mom. I wanted them to worry less and
enjoy life more, to take risks and try new things. But I rarely sought to
go out of my comfort zone myself.
In fact, given my nervous nature, my bookish upbringing, my
midlife responsibilities, and my boundless propensity for tripping and
falling and hurting myself, my comfort zone was less a zone and more
a skittish zigzag from car to coffee shop to supermarket to office to
sofa to fridge to bed, where I lay awake, worrying. The day I realized
I wanted something more for my girls was the day I realized I had to
do something more myself. And the day all our lives changed for the
I scheduled two diving lessons with my daughter’s swim coach,
Jenny Javer. Zoe, an old college friend, had always wanted to learn how
to dive and asked to join in. Jenny is exactly who you’d want by your
side if your ship was on fire and you had to jump off the deck to save
yourself. “A belly flop is like stubbing your toe—it hurts, but you get
over it, right?” she said, instantly dispelling a lifelong fear for both Zoe
and me. We were diving (that is, falling with style) from the side of the
pool within a half hour; and by the end of the first lesson, she’d deemed
us ready to try the diving board the next time.
Yet at the beginning of the second lesson, Zoe and I had lingered in
the shade, meticulously applying sunscreen, as if a layer of SPF would
protect us from all pain. We watched the teens lined up for the diving
board push and shove and dare each other into ever more dangerous
stunts. Do we have to do this? our expressions must have said loud and
clear, because Jenny broke in: “Don’t think.”
The two of us, Chinese-American straight-A students for life,
stood blinking at her, uncomprehending.
“You know what to do,” Jenny said, appealing to our knowledge
base. “It’s the same as what you’ve done before, just a little higher.
Come on now.”
It sounded so sensible on the ground. I tucked my hair into a ponytail,
put one last smear of sunscreen on the back of my neck, and took
my place in line. A few minutes later, and ten steps down the plank, I
was suspended over the county pool, sweating through my Speedo. I’m
on the diving board. This feels a lot higher up than it looks.
I took a deep breath, and dove in. With a big fat splash.
It was one of the proudest moments of my life.
Not only did Zoe and I survive, we became divers that day. Not
only did we become divers that day, we got a new lease on life. If I can
do this, something I never thought I could do . . . well, then anything is
possible. I was captivated by how fears held for decades could be dispelled
in a matter of minutes. How many of us are held back by fears
that make our lives smaller than they need to be, fears that, before we
know it, define who we are?
I started a blog about facing fears and trying new things in midlife,
called Facing Forty Upside Down. I figured if I committed myself in
writing, at least Gigi could follow along and hold me to my promises. I
wasn’t sure if anyone else would read it. Everywhere I looked I saw con-
fident, successful people. I wasn’t sure anyone else could relate.
It turned out I was far from alone. Friends from all phases of my life
and around the world responded from cyberspace. New acquaintances
and neighbors from around the corner pulled me aside at the coffee
shop or the playground to tell me how afraid they were. Afraid to swim,
to drive at night, to ride a chairlift. Afraid of getting hurt, of looking
dumb, of growing old. Some were tentative by nature and nurture.
Others remembered living exuberantly until a bad experience scarred
them. Still others, spread thin by life’s responsibilities, no longer had
the energy to shake things up. It struck me how universal the emotions
were beneath the specific fears. It all boiled down to fear of pain, fear of
rejection, fear of death, a sense of powerlessness. And the stranglehold
these feelings had on us made us less than who we wanted to be.
Not that there was any lack of advice out there. The self-
help section of any bookstore had lots of suggestions for how to face fear. Un-
fortunately, they all seemed to conflict. It doesn’t matter why you’re
afraid, just do what you fear was one school of thought, while another
cautioned, Stop, think, why are you afraid? It’s because of your brain,
your genes, your upbringing, your chakras, your past lives, your diet,
your pets or lack thereof. If you could focus on your future, if you could
reframe your past, if you could just be in the present, all might be well.
There were books that profiled extraordinary heroes—jet pilots,
prisoners of war, Olympic athletes, world leaders—stepping up to ex-
treme challenges. There were books about putting life on hold for a
spiritual quest, or doing Fear Factor–type challenges like skydiving or
shark cage diving. I loved those stories. But how did they relate to my
life? I was tempted to chuck it all and buy The New Encyclopedia of
And then it came to me.
I want to write a book about how ordinary people face everyday fears.
About what motivates us, what keeps us going, what helps us most of all.
About how our lives change when we become our best, bravest selves.
Of course, fear is a valuable self-protecting mechanism, so I left
some life-preserving intuitive fears (snakes, lightning, blood, clowns,
for example) well enough alone. But other common surmountable fears
were fair game and I had a theory that different methods would be ef-
fective in different situations, so I cast a wide net. I joined Toastmasters
and did ropes courses and self-defense classes and put myself in more
ridiculous predicaments than I’d ever imagined. I wore helmets and
harnesses, high heels and swimsuits (not at the same time), and over
and over again, I looked at myself, thinking, I’m about to do something
completely different now. And I loved every nerve-racking minute.
Along the way, I met so many inspiring people: a priest, a rabbi,
and a swami; therapists; multiple swim coaches; and two car crash sur-
vivors. I heard about near-death experiences by plane and boat and
hanging off a cable way above the ground. I saw shaking people step up
to a mic and grown men pedal undersized bikes. I watched adults
working with kids and discovered that who learned more from whom
was entirely up for grabs. I encountered breakthroughs and setbacks
and surprises I certainly didn’t see coming.
Every single person in this book opened my eyes in a different way,
and collectively they showed me how much we are the same. For it’s not
just fear we have in common but our endless capacity for joy.
What began as a challenge that I took on for the sake of my kids
became a series of lessons in how to open my heart to the elements. The
payoff—exhilaration, irrepressible laughter, gratitude, and lo! courage,
too—is what I want to share with you.
You can face your fears. You can learn and grow. And you can have
the time of your life doing it, too. You can go from being an armchair
adventurer to the heroine of your own story, and you don’t need a personality
transplant or a sudden windfall to do it. You don’t even need to
do anything crazy (unless you discover, as I did, that you really kind of
All you need is some nerve.
© Patty Chang Anker 2013
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