Fearless Friday: Courage, Bravery, and What to Really Do with Fear.

Think of the bravest person you can.

Did you think of an astronaut? (I did – I’ve got my Space.porn articles on the brain) What about a cop? Or a firefighter or other first-responder? Maybe you thought of a soldier on the front lines running across enemy fire to save one of his or her comrades. I’d also be willing to bet that a few of you thought of your favorite movie or comic book hero.

Yeah, I picked Captain Marvel.

Why didn’t you pick yourself?

I bet you’re braver than you think. I bet there are things you can do that could send a twenty-year-veteran cop to the psych ward. Okay, maybe not quite that extreme, but I still maintain that you’re braver than you think.

I know this because I’m braver than I think. I find this out about myself again and again, but I first really learned it after going through basic training. I don’t remember ever being more perpetually afraid in my life. I’m honestly surprised I didn’t have a stroke. There was nothing there that could physically harm me (T.I.s are allowed to yell at you all they want, but gone are the Full Metal Jacket days of drill sergeants physically assaulting trainees), unless it was an accidental injury, which, believe me, was the absolute last thing on my mind for those six weeks (yeah, yeah… I only went through six weeks of BMT, I’m a chair-force ranger, blah, blah, blah… I stand by my decision to join the Washington Air National Guard as the smartest choice for me at the time, and that the Air Force is the best branch of service. Period.)

What was I so afraid of?

You know how Roosevelt said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself?” Well, that’s not exactly true. Yes, I was afraid of being afraid in that situation, there was that kind of feedback loop happening, but that wasn’t all. What I was afraid of the most was failure. I was afraid that I was going to be recycled and have to stay in basic training longer, or that I wold be discharged somehow and have to go home in disgrace. I was afraid that I wasn’t going to be good enough to meet the standard I had set for myself, which was to become Airman First Class Brandon Humphreys (I got out as a Staff Sergeant, if you’re wondering).

Getting through basic training pushed me to my mental and physical limits (or so I thought at the time), and it taught me that I can remain calm in the midst of chaos, that I can pay attention to detail and do an effective job when everything around me is falling apart. And those are lessons I’ve kept with me since I graduated BMT at 23 years old.

Hooray for You, Brandon! I’m Not Joining the Military.

I’m not one of those people who thinks that we ought to have compulsory military service or anything like that, but I do think that Boot Camp taught me some very valuable lessons about fear, enduring fear, conquering fear, and being tempered by fear.

If you’ve never been through BMT, and/or you’re never going to, here’s what you’ll miss.

There’s your “Chair Force” rangers!
  • The importance of cooperation and teamwork.
    • If your flight (that’s what we call them, not platoons) doesn’t work as a team, you will all fail. That’s the way BMT is designed. Going through a situation like that, with fifty other guys from every background imaginable teaches you a couple of things about fear.
    • First, you have to put it aside and work with people who intimidate you in order to get shit done. Second, in the words of Goethe, “Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.” I learned in BMT, that no matter how bad things get, if I have a friend or two around, I can get through anything – and I had some of the best friends I could have ever asked for during that time – you know who you are if you’re reading this.
  • Take the time for emotional release.
    • One of the pieces of advice I got during my first week was to go to church every Sunday, whether you’re religious or not. Now, I was a devout Christian at the time, so that was going to happen no matter what, but even now as an atheist, I would still give that advice to anyone going into basic. I cried like a baby the whole way through the first Sunday of BMT, and I felt much better afterward, and I moved on with week one.
    • Another great way of taking a break from the stress was to volunteer for KP. It was a couple of hours a day during which the wolves were at bay. All of the T.I.’s were focused on the trainees who were eating, not the ones who were in the kitchen. If you have to be brave, do what you have to do to survive the moment, but make sure to take the time for the emotional release afterward.
  • Sometimes even when you’re right, you’re wrong.
    • What does this have to do with fear? A lot. I wasn’t a Marine by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve heard Marines and other infantry-style combat troops talk about considering themselves already dead when they’re in the war zone. I imagine that comes from something that every G.I. learns in basic – if the T.I.’s got it out for you, it doesn’t matter what you do, you’re wrong. They actually train T.I.’s to treat trainees that way because it teaches you a lot about life and the reality of the job you signed up for. In the combat zone, no matter how well-trained, how well-prepared, or how well-equipped you are, you or anyone in your squad can catch a bad-luck bullet at any time.
    • The same is true in life. None of us make it out alive. It’s a cliche, but if we can truly learn to accept that, it’s incredibly liberating. I don’t know if anyone can accept it permanently – except maybe the terminally ill – but I’ve had near-death moments and have come face to face with the reality that I will die someday, maybe within the next five minutes. I don’t dwell on it, and I’m not really afraid of it either, but I know it deep down. I think being smoked anyway by T.I.s for things I didn’t do or for answers I got right taught me a lot about the fact that we lose in life even when we give it our best shot, and that as long as we’re still breathing afterward, it’s up to us to keep going.
  • Everything is temporary.
    • Part of the reason being recycled (held back a couple of weeks for bad behavior or screwing up too much) scared me so was that I knew that BMT was an obstacle I would have to overcome, but that once I’d overcome it, I’d never have to do it again. If I was recycled, it just meant that many more weeks of trying to get through that obstacle… and I’m impatient A.F. when it comes to dealing with negative situations for any longer than I have to.
    • I measured time obsessively. I had a reputation in our flight because at any given moment, I could tell you, in any one of several different standards of measurement, how much time we had left until graduation. Weeks, of course, was the easy way to start. You only start with six. The problem with weeks is that they take too damn long to be of any immediate psychological value. So you have forty two days. Well, believe me, this is no eight-hour day at the office. These days are much longer, so again, you have to go a little deeper to really get psychological satisfaction. I couldn’t go by hours or minutes because there would be too many to keep track of and honestly I’m not that quick with the arithmetic. But, there was one other constant that divided up the day in more manageable chunks than hours or minutes. Meals. Forty two days times three squares a day meant 126 meals total and I could tell you every few hours how many meals we had left before we graduated. Every time someone asked.
Tech. Sgt. Raul Lopez corrects a new Air Force Reserve recruit Feb. 6, 2010, at Duke Field. Sergeant Lopez and his wife, Master. Sgt. Tiffany Lopez (pictured) both former active-duty military training instructors at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, volunteered their time to help new reserve recruits prepare for basic training during the drill weekend here. The husband and wife team spent four years instructing new trainees at Lackland graduating 25 flights from Basic Military Training. Sergeant Tiffany Lopez is assigned to the 96th Force Support Squadron. Sergeant Raul Lopez is assigned to the 96th Logistics Readiness Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Samuel King Jr.)

Well what about courage and bravery then?

I know. I’ve gotten off topic again. The point of enumerating in painful detail those life lessons from basic training was to show that when you can learn to push through and manage your fear, you will come through the crucible stronger, or you’ll be broken.

Sometimes being broken is okay. In fact, that’s a part of the basic training model, too. They tear you down first so that they can re-build you as a stronger, more disciplined, and more confident version of yourself. Do you have any scars? Have you ever been physically broken? I do, and I have. and those injured areas are tougher now than they were before.

I have a few scars. A couple from surgeries and one on the palm of my hand from a deep cut in a dog-feeding accident during my teen years. If you have scars, then you know that scar tissue is thicker, and more durable than normal tissue. It usually still carries some ghost of pain with it, though nothing so immediate.

I’ve also had joint injuries – specifically my knees, and on my right knee, there’s a huge calcium deposit from where my body just naturally decided that bone needed to be stronger to hold that goddamn kneecap in place. It’s a part of the healing process, the doctors tell me.

So we’re made, it seems to get broken and come away stronger. In the Nerd Fitness universe, they call it being anti-fragile, but that’s a whole other book and post that I’m not going to get into. The point is, the old adage really is true – that which doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger. Sometimes in ways you won’t even know about until much later.

One of the ways therapists treat people with anxiety is to have them imagine the worst case scenario, and sit with it for a bit. Really imagine it as if it had happened, and think about how it would feel, what you would think, and then what you would do. Most of the time what happens is that patients begin to understand that first of all, Tom Petty was right when he said, “Most things I worry ’bout never happen anyway,” and second that even if the worse happens, there are solutions. They may not be the solutions we want, but the solutions are there, and again, everything is temporary.

Wrapping Up

First, don’t beat yourself up for being afraid of something. We’re all afraid, it’s how we handle the fear we have that defines our courage and bravery.

Second, failure happens and you’re going to die no matter what. You already know the outcome. You just don’t know how you’re going to get there. If it’s just failure you’re afraid of, remember that being broken is how you get stronger. If it’s death, well, I don’t know what to tell ya. We’re all going to get there eventually, so I guess we’d better do some good before we arrive.

Finally, it’s all temporary. Look, if you’re going through some shit, I know that platitudes like that actually hurt more than they help, but the truth is, if you’re going through some shit, nothing I write is going to make your situation better. Instead I can only offer the following as a way to try and deal with your fear over whatever shit you’re in: First, breathe. If you can get to a quiet, private place, do so. Expand your shoulders and take a deep breath. This will help reduce your stress hormones. Don’t panic because you’re afraid. Know that everyone is afraid when they face stressful situations, and know that even if you fail, as long as you are still breathing afterward, you’ll come away stronger.

Now get out there this weekend and do something outside of your comfort zone!