Maybe it is the political climate or maybe it is our enhanced expectations around safety and security but these days, I meet more people who handle unfamiliar situations with a great degree of trepidation if not downright fear. The old adage about what we don’t know we fear (and what we fear we destroy) seems truer today than when I was growing up.
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Or maybe I just had a mother who taught me well. She taught me to look for security, not in my environment but within myself.
I remember, as an 8-year-old, being a pretty fearful child, afraid of all things real and imagined. I had difficulty making friends because I was afraid of anything new or different so it was not till I was 10 years old that my mother found an opportunity to give me my fearless feet.
I had auditioned and just been chosen for a small part in our annual school production of a Shakespeare play. It was a big deal for me and I was keen on proving myself and doing well. But play practice was late evening, after dark, and I had to traverse all sorts of winding lonely lanes to walk back and forth from my house to the theater.
I begged my mother to walk with me. She was busy. So was everyone else. What to do? Do I drop out of the play?
“Are you afraid of the dark? It’s a perfectly safe area and the moonlight is beautiful,” said my mother. “You can walk by yourself.”
“I feel like somebody is following me. Or someone is going to jump out of the bushes and attack me. And then the feeling gets so strong, I just start running and keep running till I am back home.”
“You are right to be afraid. But how does it help to start running? Your fear just grows and grows and now it is stopping you from participating in the play.”
“But I can’t help it. What do I do?” I whined.
“Here’s what you do” she said. “Start walking at a steady pace. As you get scared, you’ll find you are walking faster and faster. That’s OK. First, distract yourself by looking around. When that stops working, you’ll find yourself wanting to break into a run. Just stop dead in your tracks.”
“What if I can’t?” I interrupted.
“I know it will be hard. So after you stop, this is what you do next. Turn around 180 degrees so you are facing the back. Plant your feet wide. Stand straight and yell “who’s there?”
“Okay. I’ll try but what if I can’t?” By now I had figured out that my mother would not walk me to practice.
“I will tell you a secret: your feet are fearless even in the dark, so when your mind takes over and commands your feet to run you remember this secret and you just let your feet take over and give your mind something else to do—like yelling, or looking around to see who is following you. Your feet will not run and your brain will get time to figure out if there is real danger.”
“Got it. Don’t run.”
“Yes. Anyway if a dog is chasing you, you are better off throwing a pebble at it—you can’t outrun a dog. If it’s a ghost, who knows maybe he is friendly.” She smiled. “You can’t outrun that either. Maybe you should try talking to it. And indeed if someone is chasing you, you can always turn and run again, but your feet will know why and you will be led by your fearless feet and not by a fearful mind.”
That night, after play practice, I found myself shaking even before I started the walk. Oh no! By the time I was midway, where the shadows were darkest, the urge to run was stronger than ever. I remembered my fearless feet so when my mind said run my feet stayed grounded. I fell. I got up dusted myself, faced the back and planted my feet wide. In the few seconds it took to do this, my mind went from worrying about monsters to worrying about “Oh I hope no one saw me. I must be looking pretty silly.”
It was like a switch in my brain. The night I learned to be fearless in the dark, I gained the ability to let my feet take over in the face of danger. Barking dogs and ghostly creatures of the night became friends that walked with me.
I learned the wisdom of fearless feet.
From school to college to career and family, I graduated from facing bullies in the playground, to venturing in unknown lands with people of unknown customs and finally to the unknown dark places inside my own mind like the demons of my 10-year-old self.
Courage is not the absence of fear but the skill that allows you to face fear. Courage gives you the self-confidence to stop yourself in your tracks from having a knee-jerk reaction like running or lashing out. I have learned that if you approach people from a position of trust, you get trust in return; that you can dispel fear just by understanding it exists—in yourself as well as in others.
Fear is hardwired into the brain. It is the life-preservation instinct that sharpens the senses, gets the adrenaline flowing, making the body ready for flight or fight. But for people in a civilized society, a threat, real or imagined, is not about life or death, but an opportunity for improving quality of life.
I was 10 years old when I learned to channel misplaced energy through fearless feet for ghost encounters. But soon the skill translated into everyday action and thought to create an appropriate response to situations I faced.
When I came to the United States for graduate studies in August 1970, I knew no one. I had my admissions information, 8 dollars in my pocket, a suitcase full of books, and my fearless feet. I made friendships with students of all nationalities, teachers of different disciplines, and found mentors in the community. I took the initiative to befriend strangers even if I did not speak their language, share their nationality, dress like them or have the same religion. In doing so, I found adventure, trust, and lasting relationships. You see, the critical aspect of fearless feet is not naiveté but an informed enthusiasm for every possible outcome—even if it means backtracking to get where you need to go. Fearless feet gave me a trusting mindset; the world became my village.
As a child of midnight freedom, or independent India, I came to know many women who walked on fearless feet, like my mother. I saw or heard stories of adventure and courage; how they turned enemies into friends, foreigners into neighbors and barbarians into community. I read about inner strength in Indian classics and ancient yoga books. I grew up with values like “unity in diversity” and the sayings of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi. I learned that the only way to break a cycle of cruelty is through compassion. At ten years of age I did not understand Gandhiji’s exhortation of courage for peaceful action: “if someone slaps you on one cheek, turn your face and show them the other cheek.” Today it is a basic value system in all my negotiations—work as well as personal. I understand that taking a calculated risk to open a communication channel is an act of courage and the only winning strategy. In civil society, flight or fight is not a long term win-win approach.
Nowhere are fearless feet more useful than in the workplace. Manager, leader or employee, our feet remind us to negotiate for the long term. Trust others and do the right thing yourself.
I found my fearless feet thanks to women in my life like my mother. Now, I pack them in my handbag, first thing, every morning, along with my wallet and driving license as I head off to live another day.
The wisdom of fearless feet has allowed me to live a life that is so much brighter and fulfilling than it might otherwise have been. Thanks to my mother.
Neerja Raman is a research scholar at Stanford University, inducted into the Technology Hall of Fame in 2005 by Women in Technology International (WITI). She considers herself fortunate to have had parents who encouraged her to study science in school. She maintains a social entrepreneurship blog (From Good to Gold).