It’s a midwinter morning in Hobart, after the longest night of the year. White frost covers the grass. The air temperature is 2 °C. The sun’s not even up yet, because it’s only 6.45 am. So why would people be driving, walking, and riding their bikes down to suburban Long Beach and assembling near the water, dressed in whatever clothes are the warmest things they own? There they stand, in track pants, uggies, down jackets, scarves and beanies, casually chatting and laughing. I join a small group. We’re stomping our feet and rubbing hands together to keep warm. Organisers, dressed in black, are bustling around near a black tent. Gradually, things happen. People line up casually, collect towels and caps, have a number drawn on their hand. There’s a safety briefing. Over to the (vaguely heated) change room. Out we come in our white towels and red caps, down to the beach, kicking at the frosty sand. We tentatively dip toes in the water, a relatively balmy 12 Degrees. Then – ACTION! The orange flare goes off, towels drop and we all run whooping and yelling into the water, as bare as the day we were born. Cold is no longer a word, it becomes a part of our bodies, it takes over legs and arms and goes way beyond ‘refreshing’. We stumble out with numb feet, but big smiles, and grab a towel. The sky is brightening, the mountain has a rosy cap of cloud. It’s a glorious morning and I feel totally alive.
Many people thought I was very brave when I did the Winter Solstice Swim, but the awful truth is that I’ve always been a big coward. Yes, I’m the toddler who burst into tears at the sight of a balloon, the kid who found horse riding absolutely terrifying and the painfully self-conscious, gawky teenager. I was so shy that I could barely answer the phone and I used to cross the road to avoid having to – gasp – talk to people. My comfort zone was the size of a sofa, my fears were crippling my life. It took me a while to realise that, like the balloon, there was really not much substance to them. Just air, mostly. The rest was all in my head. I decided I had to do something about that annoying little negative voice, saying “ooohh, you can’t do that! It’ll never work! It’s too scary! Don’t even try!”. So I got the whip out and trained myself to be less shy. I didn’t realise I was being my own psychologist and practicing ‘exposure therapy’ without a licence. I just gradually forced myself to make phone-calls and talk to more and more ‘challenging’ people. It was hard. Really hard. I persevered and worked my way up from ringing my Mum to calling a friend, and talking to people in shops and at the bank. Eventually I graduated to a job in a pizza restaurant while I was studying. In time, I even came to enjoy meeting new people and I now happily chat to people on the bus, in a shop, anywhere, but I have never forgotten how difficult it was to overcome that fear.
As a society, we give awards and medals for extraordinary acts of bravery, and rightly so. What we tend to ignore is the ordinary, everyday kind of courage. I recently read an article by Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse, who collected the regrets of the dying. This is what she found:
“1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
What struck me most about this list is how many of these regrets (perhaps all except number 4) are related to courage, especially the courage to do what you know is right and to change the way you live your life in small and bigger ways.
It’s so easy to keep on doing things the way we always have. The little nay-saying voice is silent when I’m in a nice, cosy rut. It doesn’t say a thing when I’m sitting on the sofa, doing a bit of work from home, thinking about applying for another job – tomorrow. It hasn’t gone away, though. It’s quietly and sneakily gaining strength, ready to pounce as soon as I try to actually do something different. The battle is never won for good and a comfort zone can be a trap in disguise, seductively warm and safe. Everyone must find their own way of dealing with their fears and living their life. Sometimes help from family and friends or professional advice is needed. For me, I know that I need to keep practicing being brave, because it doesn’t come naturally. That is why I was out there in the freezing cold that Saturday morning, in spite of my tummy scars and the many years I’d spent being self-conscious about my appearance. Was it liberating? Hell yes. No-one gave a toss what anyone looked like, it was way too cold for starters! Once we were all out there it seemed like the most natural, human thing in the world.
Why did I do it? Because I never did anything crazy as a teenager. Because I wanted to push my body to its limits and climbing mountains is not my thing. Because we should all stop worrying about what our bodies look like, and this was a good step forwards. Because I felt like it, and to hell with that little voice. Let’s all be more brave. Let’s all get off the comfy sofa. Start small and who knows where it might end?
Published 9 July 2013 on Mamamia