I have often told callers struggling with their fears (real or imagined or exaggerated) that next to character, I admire guts. Actually, having the fortitude to face the things we’re afraid of is a measure of character.
A few weeks ago, I was out for only the third time on my new paddleboard. I was balancing well, in spite of passing motorboats leaving scary wakes in my path. I was in choppy waters, which was not that smart at my level of experience, and feeling great about what I was doing, when-BAM-I hit the board full flat and hard on my left side and slid underwater. I was stunned, cold, and worried about becoming a shark snack. I swam quickly back to the board, pulled myself up, and lay there shaking with cold, shock, and fear. I pulled my knees under me, then got my feet down as I poised in a crouched position, and then stood straight up and paddled nervously for another fifteen minutes. The point of these actions was that I knew that if I just swam ashore, I might never get on the board again. My left ribs hurt tremendously, and I’m still healing. But for me, the main point was getting back up then and there, and scowling directly into the face of fear.
This is a small step for a girl like me. A much bigger step for a little girl is the story of Bethany Hamilton. She nearly lost her life in a vicious shark attack while surfing off the coast of Hawaii almost six years ago. The shark attack happened while she was lying on her board with her arm dangling comfortably in the water. The shark ripped her left arm off just below the shoulder, and she almost died from blood loss – the shark left a sixteen inch “bite” on her surfboard. Grisly, to say the least. By the way, they caught the shark. It was a 14-foot-long tiger shark, which weighed 1400 pounds.
What was Ms. Hamilton doing just a month after that shark took her left arm? Re-training herself to surf competitively with only one arm. Her positive attitude won her a 2004 EXPY award from ESPN for “Best Comeback Athlete of the Year.” She’s now ranked among the top ten professional women surfers in the world. With one arm.
Does this mean she has no fears? No. “When I’m feeling scared, I just sing a song or pray…or I just try to ignore it. It’s always in my mind, and it always will be, but I’ve got to keep my mind on having fun and just surfing.” She says she sees two or three sharks per year in the water and heads in if she gets scared or thinks she sees a shark. She doesn’t go in the murky water after a storm. In other words, she uses the common sense that all surfers should employ.
She travels the world for surfing competitions, and for causes in which she can help children with fears – like going to Thailand to help young children devastated by the tsunami disaster. With her unique experience, she has something very important to say about overcoming fears, much less overcoming fear of water.
I’ve always said that one of the best learning tools in the universe is to read to yourself and your family biographies of people who have fought inner and outer demons and prevailed. This is one of those stories.
And you don’t have to be afraid of the ocean to benefit. Life has its disappointments, assaults, devastation, frustrations, challenges, and bad luck. That’s just life. What you do after that point is the measure of your life.