Finding the Line Between Bravery & Fear

Someone somewhere said something profound about there being a fine line between bravery and stupidity. I’d like to amend that just a bit: there’s a fine line between being brave (overcoming your fears) and playing it safe (not pushing yourself hard enough). Here’s my question: How can you tell the difference?

I struggle with this question each and every time my husband and I head out on the rocks. We’re rock climbers. I found my love for the rocks in the safety of a gym where the “rocks” were actually plastic, multi-colored holds lining the wall. My husband learned outside on the real thing, and almost as soon as we met, he took me outdoors to show me what real climbing was all about. Fast-forward about three years, and I’m still trying to make the adjustment from inside to outside. The problem is mainly in my head.

Well, it’s probably also a little bit in my feet. I can’t seem to walk straight lines without bumping into things or tripping over my own wobbly appendages. Put me on the side of a rocky crag, connected to a rope, and I’ll do a little better because I trust the rope—but only to a point. I still prefer not to fall, and while my husband pushes himself to try moves on the rock that might cause him to pop off and fly into the air, I prefer never to push myself to that point. I hate losing control. I hate feeling like I’m out of control, especially when I’m 20-30 feet off the ground.

I think many people would understand my fear in the air, but strangely enough, I feel like I become my most cowardly when I’m on solid ground. It goes back to my inability to walk straight lines. When my husband and I approach a spot to climb, we frequently have to do what is called a scramble to get to where the climb begins. This means we are usually at the top of the climb, and we have to scramble down to the proper location to set up the rope and anchor and then rappel to the bottom. I actually love the rappel (yes, I know, I have weird fears and non-fears), but I hate the scramble. One wrong step, and over the edge I go. And keep in mind that for a majority of the scramble, the climber is not connected to a rope. My husband is the most sure-footed person I know, and sometimes I can’t watch him scramble around for fear that he might go tumbling into the air. But he’s always confident and calm, and while I scoot toward a climb on my butt because I’m terrified of what my feet will do, he just walks confidently toward that edge.

Here’s a recent example of me going head to head with my fear. I found myself in Ireland recently to pursue further studies toward my MFA degree, and my husband joined me for a few days of rock climbing. We took on sail rock in the north of Ireland, a 100-meter climb that thrilled my husband and scared the bejesus out of me. But I do have to admit it looks pretty darn cool in the pictures.


My husband carries the rope for the climb. This is the view from the top of the cliff.


I’m pictured here just above the start of the climb. I’ve done most of the scramble on my butt, and now I’m roped in and awaiting the rappel. That smile conceals great fear!


I’m on rappel! Oddly enough, this feels safer to me than the scramble.


This is the climb. My husband and I are the little dots toward the bottom, and the rappel rope is to the right of us. We’re about to climb back up to where we started.

I always feel braver after the fact when I can enjoy the photos. In that moment on the rocks, however, just steps from a gigantic fall, I prefer the butt scoot with just barely audible whimpers escaping my lips. So, from the safety of my computer desk and not the edge of the abyss in Ireland, I return to ponder my original question: how can you tell the difference between being brave and being cowardly? For now, I’m okay with my fear as long as it keeps me from tripping and falling off that edge, but if it ever keeps me from climbing or if it ever endangers those around me because I require too much help, then I think I’ve found my answer. Too much fear is debilitating. Too little is sheer stupidity.

Special thanks to our guide Iain at Unique Ascent for taking us climbing in Ireland and capturing these moments with his camera. 

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