“If you don’t feel fear with a heavy weight over your head, then you are probably mentally ill.”
Arizona is not for sissies.
As I walk into the local dirty hippie mecca – aka Whole Foods, my fast food of choice when on the road in the US – I notice a sign amongst the usual “No shirt, no shoes, no service” gallery: A finely rendered drawing of a rather large firearm, set within a red circle and diagonal slash. No guns.
The explicit statement of this guideline draws attention to its reverse: If you have to tell people not to bring hefty firearms into the grocery store, it means that, prior to said rule, cowboys/girls were packing heat in the produce aisle.
What did they fear? Mutinous oranges? The social order crumbling when someone brought 11 items into the express lane?
There is, indeed, much to fear in Arizona. Here, the terrain is baked hard.
This ground will chew you up and hork you out along with a mouthful of tobacco spit. The gravel crumbles underfoot and the rocks are spiky.
Everything has poky spines, from the saguaro’s skewers to the barrel cactus’ fish-hook harpoons, to the innocent-looking teddy-bear cholla’s pincushions. Even Camelback Mountain is named after a spine, which it resembles – all bony vertebrae and pithy humps. Our hiking guide carries pliers, in case our tender flesh might need a good yank or scrape. It’s a scary place.
I do this hike twice. The first time, I wear my tried-and-true Merrells, which are the stylistic equivalent of wearing Kleenex boxes on one’s feet. Like the old “It’s boxy but it’s good” slogan for Volvo, these are sturdy sensible shoes that any British Depression-era sanitorium nurse would have been proud to wear.
I clomp with impunity over hill and dale with these bad boys. I scarcely notice the danger. I dare a saguaro to piss me off – I will kick you in the effin face, cactus!! If I had a big gun like the Whole Foods peeps, I would blast baby animals like Leonard Smalls in Raising Arizona.
The second time I hike, I wear Vibrams, essentially barefooting over Nature’s minefield. Now my senses are sharp. I am paying attention. My steps are different – I have to chart a course from step to step, dancing from rock to trench to crevice to slippery sand. My toes grip like a gecko’s. I am there, deeply present in the experience.
Fear has a way of capturing our attention.
This is not unlike the experience of dropping under a metal bar directly over my skull. The only things between 55% of my bodyweight and my cranium are my soft pink arms, my will, and the laws of physics – most of which are currently against the success of this mission.
Two men are watching my snatch. (Pause for comic effect.)
I’m training at the Staley Performance Institute in Phoenix, getting one-on-one advice from not one but two kickass strength and conditioning coaches – Charles Staley and David Jack. If it weren’t for the fact that my hands are ground hamburger after several hours of practice, I’d be in ecstasy.
We’re practicing the snatch lift. (Grow up, stop laughing, and Google it. Wait, don’t.)
Charles is making a frowny face behind his spectacles. Dave is crinkling his eyebrows. They have discovered an exciting anomaly in my lift technique, one that Charles – trainer of hundreds, possibly thousands – has never seen before. He is as puzzled and excited as a primatologist discovering a new species of lemur with tentacles.
Somehow my barbell is travelling outward, not upward, when I haul it up overhead. Charles is fascinated yet repelled.
“How can you shrug sideways?” Charles asks, to no one in particular. This is more of a rhetorical question directed at the whimsical universe that has, with impish glee, created a rift in the biomechanical time-space continuum.
“It’s like I’ve dropped a ball, and it’s gone sideways. Dave, are you getting this?” Dave is indeed getting this. He is scrutinizing my lower traps now.
“Are your traps connected to your sternum?” Charles wisecracks. Oohh! Anatomy tittering! I insist I am pulling up. Indeed, I can feel this snatch pull in my earlobes.
(Digression: Geoff Girvitz of Bang Fitness, commenting on the problem of over-active upper traps and Desk Monkey Hunch creating rotator cuff damage, opines that “Ears are poison to shoulders.”)
“Well, I’m stumped,” says Charles, conceding analytical defeat. Yes, dear reader, I have stumped Charles Frickin’ Staley with my bizarre lifting technique.
I feel proud. I am a unique and special snowflake!
We lift and lift. I have catchophobia. As Charles remarks, most lifts are known quantities. When you unrack a squat or bench press, or start pulling a deadlift from the floor, you more or less know what you’re getting. There won’t be too many surprises.
But with the Olympic lifts, each attempt is a leap into the abyss. A lifter must be prepared to sacrifice good sense and the expectation of comfort. Any number of exciting and possibly hilarious things could happen on the way to the top. This would be what Donald Rumsfeld called “known unknowns”.
Frankly, as an O-lifter, the only thing you do know is that you are facing a bar on the floor. As soon as that bar leaves the platform, you’re shipwrecking yourself on the rocky shores of entropy. Good luck, sailor.
Speaking of fear, Charles is no stranger to the sphincter-loosening terror of flinging a barbell overhead. I walk in to our training session to find him snatching a new PR of 185 lb, plummeting sickeningly beneath nearly two hundred upward-hurtling pounds into a deep squat. He pauses beneath the barbell, butt hovering above the floor, in a semi-crucifixion position.
“UP!” barks Dave. Somehow, Charles’ body, hunkered under a hunk of iron, obeys. The lift is solid. Today: Lifter 1, Entropy 0.
In between twice-daily training sessions (heaven!), hikes, desert yoga with a delightfully crunchy, still-beautiful sexagenarian hippie who tells me to open my fire chakra, and getting humiliated by David’s agility ladders, I sit in the sun like a lizard and read while the UV rays toast my white Canadian flesh. While readng, I stumble across a concept that is new to me (yes, I know that the late 1960s called and they want their concept back), but somehow incredibly explanatory:
Fear of negative evaluation: FNE.
I love me some TLAs. I’ve long been a fan of FMO – fear of missing out. FMO is what you experience when you can’t say no to things. ‘Cause, like, what if you miss something? What if something happens and you’re not there? What if there’s some crucial piece of information you don’t have?
If you have FMO you’re nodding right now, except you’re probably distracted because you’re also watching an instructional video and downloading an article and doing some committee paperwork, just in case.
Fear of negative evaluation involves constant preoccupation with other people’s potentially negative judgements of you. You do everything you can to avoid these judgements, because they scare the hell out of you.
- You might be a people-pleaser. Approve of me! Approve of me!
- You might be a pre-emptive self-criticizer – you shoot in like a ninja to crap on yourself before anyone else can. If you ninja crap yourself then you got there first, bitches!! You are the baddest and the best putdowner! Nobody else can hurt you with their slings and arrows like numero uno!
- You might fret and worry and whittle your spirit down to a little nub. What if? What if? What if?
- You might avoid situations where you could look bad or stupid. Looking bad or stupid is shameful and to be avoided at all costs. Consequently, of course, there is no juice in your life because to do anything fun or exciting or adventurous usually involves some potential element of silliness or screwups.
Notice what all these have in common? Two things:
- Despite being focused on other people’s judgements, FNE is – ironically — incredibly narcissistic (What do they think of me? They must have noticed me! They really really give a shit about every tiny thing I’m doing and saying and thinking! They are so carefully observing me that they totally notice that extra piece of toast I ate!).
- FNE leaches your life dry of every last bit of joy.
Out of curiosity, I took a quick 30-second FNE test. My score? 27 out of a possible 30. Doh.
To be fair, I’ve made tremendous progress in this department.
As a child, I could barely make eye contact with people. It’s like they could stare into my soul. I was a sideline-sitter, avoiding activities with great determination – anything that could or would make me (I thought) look stupid was cause for shame and angst.
After a pushy piano teacher put me into a music competition at age 7, I developed Baby’s First Ulcer. (Although I wasn’t as bad as the kid who threw a tantrum of humiliation because she didn’t score as well as she thought. I guess that kid is now tallying up their score of 30/30. I just popped a few antacids, quit piano lessons years later, promptly forgot it all – sorry mom and dad – and got on with life.)
Now I love public speaking, can make eye contact, and only care what some people think of me. And I’m fully prepared to have Charles mock my bizarre Olympic lifting form, because humility is essential for learning.
You must chase fear from time to time.
You must dive in and come out the other side. You must risk this shame and humiliation. You must risk dropping the bar with a soul-shattering crash. It is the only way. Feel the fear, and do it anyway.
And along the way, feel the edges of your spirit crisping up, growing into sharper focus. When I am truly afraid with a healthy fear that says I am having adventures and stretching the envelope of my secure life – that is when I am closest to gnawing on the juicy bones of my existence. I am sucking every last drop of nourishing marrow from that present-ness.
When that bar flies up overhead – and floats – and flutters down gently into my shoulder girdle’s embrace as if guided by angels – for that heart-pounding moment I am touching the universe.