Flight, not Fight: An Essay on Fear

Over a plate of nachos that were made with random items scrounged up but that were ultimately burned, I figured something out about fear and travel.

Recently I cooked dinner with my freshman-year roommate, and we reminisced over our days of sharing a room the size of a gym locker and binge watching the entire show of Friends. Abby and I watched the silly videos we’d made, which at one point we thought were the most hilarious thing ever, and I relished in the sweet freshman innocence marked by our carefree laughter and our low threshold for entertainment. Just a few months into college, we hadn’t tasted even the beginning of life’s realities from emotional pain to overwhelming exhaustion. I’d been so anxious to grow up, to be big, and now I’m doing everything to slow down that “adulting” process.

It’s that bright-eyed, cheery confidence I crave, something that fades as time goes on. The more you know, the more fears grow. As children, we think, one day we’ll be big! We’ll have it all figured out! But as I’m getting bigger, the list of worries and, ironically, unknowns balloon in the small space called my head. (Some say it’s not so small, but I digress.)

But as I’m getting bigger, the list of worries and, ironically, unknowns balloon in the small space called my head.

Fear is truly one of the strongest forces I’ve experienced and can’t seem to escape, yet ubiquitous as it is, everyone responds differently. Some react to difficulty with a fix-it, aggressive attitude or fight response. Others prefer to live in denial, in unreality, underneath the covers — also known as the flight response. I live in the latter.

I think it’s funny that my gut reaction is a term with multiple meanings: flight away from fear and flights around the world. These seem like entirely different arenas, but I’ve found that the second forces us to deal with the first, that travel forces us to face fear.

Not long ago, I heard some tragic news, and right after, I went back to checking emails, scrolling Facebook and doing rote tasks. I stopped and thought, what the heck is the matter with you, Kristin? You just received this awful news, and all you do is jump right back into what you’re doing. I felt shame from this seemingly thoughtless reaction, but I think it’s a coping mechanism to ignore and numb deep pain and confusion. I’d rather push something to the side than deal with it. The more you know, the more things you have with the potential to go wrong, lose or manage.

But the truth is you can’t bury anything forever. It always comes back; it always, always does. I remember thinking that a summer in France would be the dream, and although I experienced several of the most cherished days of my existence and learned some lifelong lessons, I had more time and thought space than ever. It was in these moments of being temporarily estranged from my familiar surroundings and support system that I was forced to deal with me. Raw and real as can be.  Le moi. Travel forces us to deal with fear, pain and grief that we’ve been hiding in a lockbox underneath our beds for months. Travel becomes this sort of master key in a Pandora’s box of who-knows-what.

Travel forces us to deal with fear, pain and grief that we’ve been hiding in a lockbox underneath our beds for months.

On a lighter note, it introduces us to ourselves.  Not only do we have the chance to explore our surroundings, but we also have the chance to explore ourselves — what we like when the itinerary is up to us.  Travel shows us what we long for when time is limited and where we’d like to linger.  I still struggle with fear but am continually learning that the only way to beat it is to face it.  Travel forces us to encounter and engage with the unknown and reminds us it’s an adventure.

Fear always presents an opportunity to us: to fight or to flight.  And I know I’m not always going to get it right, but I do know I want to use those flights to fight fear.

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