The 'no fear' myth

In flight over Manson Mesa during the 2021 Page Lake Powell Balloon Regatta.

“Fear comes from the understanding that you can die. It usually makes me make really good decisions and gives me power.” – American big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton 

Decades ago, when I was young and hungry and took bicycle racing seriously enough to try pursuing it as a career, I had a reliable way of assessing my chances of winning an event: If I felt scared or nervous on the start line, I knew there was a good possibility that I had what it took to fight my way to a top result.

If, on the other hand, I was completely at ease and felt “no fear,” it meant that, deep down, I knew some essential element was missing that day: Maybe I was undertrained, or maybe I just wasn’t motivated to suffer enough to finish with the best riders. Not even “Eye of the Tiger” blasting through the race organizer’s PA system could help me.

As a bike racer, I came to see fear as a tough but welcome challenge to overcome. Far from convincing me that I shouldn’t participate in the race, it pushed me to keep fighting all the way to the finish line.   

Since then, my relationship with fear has become more complicated. At times, I’m inspired to face down my fears so I don’t miss out on new experiences. But I’ve also come to recognize fear as a warning that should sometimes be heeded rather than overcome – an emotion that prevents me from doing dangerous things that might get me maimed or killed.

Deciding where to draw the line between fight or flight isn’t always easy.

Shortly before the Page Lake Powell Balloon Regatta last November, I was told that, as a journalist, I would have the opportunity to go on a balloon flight with one of the visiting pilots.

I absorbed this news with mixed feelings: On the one hand, I enjoy seeking out new experiences. On the other hand, I’m mortally afraid of heights. The thought of floating hundreds of feet above Manson Mesa while standing in a basket suspended beneath a bubble of flimsy fabric filled me with a certain amount of apprehension.

As the regatta approached, I took the steps necessary to arrange my flight, but in the back of my mind, I wondered whether I would go through with it.

On the morning of the regatta, I told myself that I would go to the launch site at Page National Golf Course and, at the very least, take photos from the ground, even if I chickened out of the balloon ride. But once there, I signed in for a media flight and was assigned to a pilot: Deb Waltman from Windsor, Colorado. 

It was at this point, while her balloon Pondemonium was filling with hot air and flight was imminent, that I confessed to Deb my fear of heights.

“Oh, I’m scared of heights, too,” she said. “But I figured out a long time ago that it’s not heights that are scary, it’s edges. And balloon baskets have no edges to look over, so there’s nothing to worry about.”

I wasn’t entirely convinced by her assurances, but I followed her instructions on how to climb into the basket, all the while thinking, “It’s still not too late to bail” – and I kept thinking that right up until the moment we lifted off the ground. My muscles tensed as we drifted into the sky, but within a few minutes, I was able to relax and enjoy what for me was a new and exciting experience.

There have been other instances when I gave into fear and was glad I did. One that stands out in particular occurred in September 2007, when I lived in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar.

It was the time of the so-called Saffron Revolution, when thousands of Buddhist monks joined demonstrations that began as a protest against a sharp rise in transportation and commodity prices but blossomed into a pro-democracy movement aimed at removing the brutal, incompetent military government that had held power since the early 1960s.

On September 27, protesters gathered at a landmark Buddhist pagoda in downtown Yangon, the country’s most populous city. The pagoda was only a few blocks from my office, so I walked over with my camera to capture the moment. Over the course of an hour, the peaceful crowd gradually grew – many of them sitting on the ground and praying – while police set up barricades and strung barbed wire across the road to prevent anyone from approaching the pagoda.

Around 11 a.m., army trucks started rolling in. They were packed with soldiers clutching rifles and automatic weapons. Announcements were made over a loudspeaker commanding the crowd to disperse. Otherwise, the ominous, amplified voice said, “Action will be taken.” 

I’ve never aspired to be a war reporter. Fully aware of the Myanmar government’s bloodthirsty history – during pro-democracy protests in 1988, in which my wife took part as a teenager, the army massacred 3,000 unarmed citizens in the streets – the announcements suddenly made me feel as if I had plunged into a situation where I was in way over my head. I decided to walk back up the block, away from the pagoda, and get photos of protestors as they fled toward me, away from the inevitable volleys of tear gas and live fire.

That’s exactly what happened.. When I looked at my photos later, I noticed a silver-haired Japanese man in a blue shirt standing near me during those tense moments before the soldiers started shooting. I later identified him as Kenji Nagai, a Japanese videographer who had worked in conflict zones ranging from Afghanistan and Iraq, to the Palestinian Territories and Cambodia.

While I retreated from the danger, Nagai remained near the front line. When the soldiers opened fire, he was shot in the chest, fell onto his back and died in the street.  

Author Laurence Gonzales, in his book “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why,” writes that fear is “an integral part of saving your own life.” But even in dangerous situations, our brains are wired to make decisions based on past experiences, particularly experiences that we have repeated many times. This makes it difficult to assess new situations based on the specific conditions at hand: If we’ve had positive experiences in the past, we tend to ignore the danger signs that spring up when conditions start to change.

So, it’s possible that Nagai, who had survived many conflict zones before arriving in Myanmar, downplayed the dangers on that day in September 2007. Maybe he wasn’t aware of the army’s brutal past, or maybe he thought, “I’ve lived through worse situations than this. I’ll survive this, too.”

For me, having automatic weapons pointed in my direction by young, poorly disciplined soldiers who, I knew from past events, had no qualms about using them on unarmed protestors was a novel experience – one that raised red flags and evoked strong feelings of fear, which prompted me to flee.

Even in retreat, I wasn’t completely out of danger: A plainclothes government sympathizer saw me taking photos after the shooting started and tried to steal the camera out of my hands. Protestors swarmed him, pushed him away and encouraged me to continue documenting events as they unfolded – especially when they started carrying bloodied bodies away from scene. 

Throughout the morning, I remained close enough to the action that I was able to act as witness to what was occurring in Myanmar – some of my photos were published by a major news outlet in the U.S. – but far enough away that I didn’t become a victim of the soldiers who killed nine unarmed civilians that day. I credit fear, and the decisions it inspired, for putting me in that position.