On Roller Coasters and Dealing with Fear

With just over one month until the move, I spend most of my days in a state of excitement. It’s a bit of a frenetic excitement as there’s still so much left for me to do, but all told, I experience it as a positive emotion. The prospect of moving is rightly a thrill. New places, new people, and a new life to build all await me and often times, I catch myself grinning ear to ear as I think of all of the possibilities.

Hidden away in all of this excitement is a single fear from which all of my other negative thoughts and nerves stem. It’s a fear I’ve had since before I decided to move. On its most terrifying days, it has all but blotted out my excitement.

What if the Israel I know and love isn’t the real Israel? What if, in all this time I’ve been gone, dreaming about the land and its people, I’ve created a caricature of a country that could never live up to my expectations?

To answer these questions, I had to ride a roller coaster.

From birth to 18 years old, thrill rides terrified me. The thought of strapping myself into a gravity defying metal death machine petrified to the point that, for a time, I refused to go to amusement parks. I could not be reasoned with. I was a child controlled by fear.

To this day it’s unclear what prompted it—perhaps a new found courage, or just the changing tastes of a person growing with age, but eventually, I went on a roller coaster. Then another, and then another. My fear, it appeared, was conquered. That is until last week when, as a perk of my job, I went on an outing to an amusement park in New England.

As I sat, strapped into a ride with a particularly long ascent, I felt my heart begin to pound. I noticed too, that my hands had started to sweat, and all sorts of wild questions about the safety of the ride started swirling around in my head. Just as the ride’s extended climb reached its peak, I realized there was absolutely nothing I could do about the impending drop and in that moment, a wave of euphoria swept over me. I laughed and hollered all through the ride and even managed a smile just before the automated camera snapped our picture. 

As we were welcomed back to the loading station by an aloof teenager in khaki shorts, I had a moment of remarkable clarity, likely spurred on by the adrenaline in my system. My fear of roller coasters was still alive and well. What had changed was my relationship with that fear. Rather than allow it to paralyze me, I realized that fear is an absolutely necessary component of any good adventure story. The rush of riding a roller coaster is only possible because of the healthy dose of fear it administers. Any good thrill ride has mastered the art of tension and release.

(At this point I feel compelled to say that I too was disappointed that this realization came on a roller coaster, the most cliched device of all fear-based metaphor, but unfortunately, we can’t choose the scene for our revelations.)

Here, then, are a few lessons that roller coasters have taught me about my fears and worries and that I hope a future version of me takes the time to reflect on, especially on the days when he is doubting his direction.

1) I have definitely built up Israel in my head into something that it’s not, and that’s okay.

The truth is, when it comes to my move, there are likely some expectations I have that are unrealistic. Much like during the roller coaster’s ascent, when we are given too much time to think, wild ideas sprout wings and, if we aren’t careful, can carry us away into the most frightful corners of our imaginations. That shouldn’t; however, be allowed to distract us. Adventure is had, not when things are perfect, but when things are imperfect. As with all adventures, there will be things that fall short of our expectations while others far surpass them. The thing that makes the future special is that it is full of surprises.

2) When something is frightening, letting out emotion is a good way to expel some excess energy.

On my last roller coaster, I caught myself laughing as I flew around the turns. There wasn’t  anything particularly funny happening, but I think that in that moment, laughter was my body’s way of spending some of the nervous energy that had been building up ever since I strapped myself into the seat. To my future self, when you are in difficult situations, allow yourself to be emotional. Laugh, cry, scream if you must, but don’t get off the ride before you’ve fully experienced its lows AND its highs.

3) Smile in pictures, your mom needs to see that you’re happy.

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but it’s definitely worth mentioning. If you don’t look happy in pictures, your mom is going to ask you why you aren’t happy, and then it’s going to turn into a whole thing. Don’t let it turn into a whole thing.