The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

Fear

Fear is a defining aspect of entities that bother to budge. A mimosa will fold its leaves upon touch, driven by fear of being eaten partially or entirely. If you want to make friends with a toad, you should not embrace it, as it will leap of fear. A chameleon will take on festive colours only when it is horny, otherwise its fear will drive its camouflage. A dog will dodge an approaching piece of rock, for fear the rock would break its skull and spill the contents on the pavement in a non-aesthetic fashion. The true masters of fear, however, are us humans. We fear an incredible array of things, most of which do not pose any kind of danger to our life or ability to reproduce. I often find myself paralysed by fear, and I make repeated attempts to understand how fear limits human beings and why the limits are in place.

A dead chameleon with its tongue out

Camouflage alone will not save your life, my friend. Learn how to cross the road safely.

I got more systematic in my study of fear after an eventful mountaineering course in New Zealand. Kiwis are notorious for inventing nonsensical sports, and I had the chance to try bungee jumping from the very bridge where it was first done. Kiwis are also good capitalists, and they successfully monetized the location, having built a visitor centre next to the bridge, making a jumpee jump every four minutes or so.

A person jumping from Kawarau Bridge

A bridge for your jumping pleasure

My turn came. The guy who was tying the rope was asking me whether I wanted to get wet in the river below. I told him to get the top of my head a little bit wet. He acknowledged my request, and informed me that if I do not jump on count three, he will push me. I stood at the end of the plank, staring at the abyss below me, and he started counting. There was not much time to think about the dire consequences of a rope fault, at some point I simply leaned my body forward and was in free fall. My brain registered about two still images before I was submerged in the river. As the rope pulled me back, I had a sensory overload, for a second or two I was able to observe my mind trying regain control of sensory information. Once it did, a long plastic stick entered my vision. They were fishing me out from a boat below, and it was over.

Spurred by the experience, I decided to take it a step further and learn skydiving. There is a tiny airport near Sydney called Picton, they do regular skydives with the client in a harness happily yelling, but this is one of the few places where you also have the option of jumping on your own after taking a course. That was what I was interested in. The course took two days. We simulated how to jump and keep the correct body posture at ground level. They had five or six skateboard-like things, we were lying on those to learn how to arch the body properly. We were also taught what were essentially mantras. Basically we had to say aloud what we were doing in short words, and always perform the exact same sequence. For instance, once standing in the door of the plane getting ready to jump, this was the sequence: Head back (initialize correct arch), Out (swinging left leg back), In (returning the left leg), Go (step off into the air), Hard arch (maintain correct diving position). The hard part was the parachute. Many things could wrong with it. They were ram-air parachutes with nine cells: the tapering cells inflate when you open it, and slow down your fall while being able to control the direction. If the chords are tangled, or less than five cells inflate, or the damn thing does not open at all, you have to release it immediately, and open the second one. If you face similar problems, you have a few seconds to think of something pleasant before you cease to be considered alive by the tax authorities.

The dive took place on the second day. The plane filled with skydivers took off. A dash of adrenaline hit my veins when we reached the diving altitude of 14,000ft, the light turned green, and the door opened. I was the second to jump, so I did not have much time to reflect. The moment I was given the sign, I climbed out, repeating the mantra I was taught, checking the position of my hands, my legs, the angle of my body. Then I released the aircraft, gravity and friction rotated me in the correct plane, and about minute later I reached terminal velocity. There was not much to get excited about. I saw clouds below me, patches of green here and there, but that was it. I checked my altimeter at regular intervals, and at the given altitude, I pulled the handle of the parachute and threw it behind me. The first stage pulled out the main chute, five cells of the nine inflated, which was not suitable for landing. I had to decide whether I could fix the cells, or whether the chords were too tangled and the chute should be released and the second chute opened. The chords looked okay-ish, so I pulled the chords just as I was taught, the cells were fixed in a matter of seconds. The radio came on, and I was instructed which way to go for a safe landing. I learned that structure takes away fear. They tell you nothing when bungee jumping, but you know exactly what to do when you skydive.

Skydiving plane ready to take off

A vehicle for divers.

All my life I dreaded needles and the sight of blood. This fear really is pointless. I tried to sign up for blood donation in Singapore to face this fear, but they blacklisted the entire continent of Europe as a place of squalor where mad cow disease was more common than the flu, so I could not go through with it. While in Sydney, I spotted that there was a blood donation drive in one of the suburbs, and Aussies had nothings against European blood. The next morning I was on the train, hoping to get rid of my fear and a pint of blood. The nurses gave me strange looks when I said I was a tourist and I made it all the way just to donate blood, but hey, blood is blood, my answers looked good on the questionnaire, so I was allowed to proceed. I also told them about my fear, so they gave me several litres of waters to drink and lied me down to donate in the most comfortable position. The first nurse did not find a vein, which did not surprise me as I never had one. The second one found a source of blood, the dark red matter started to trickle painfully slowly. I was given a rubber doughnut to squeeze every now and then. While I was paler than a living dead, I was also strangely happy. Staring at the ceiling in a state of void bliss, I thought everything was going fine. Not quite. My blood was trickling too slowly. One has to donate at least 450ml in less than ten minutes, otherwise the blood is discarded. I was at 150ml after eight minutes when I was informed of this bit of wisdom. The doughnut saw some heavy squeezing after this. I reached 450ml just as the time was up, three nurses were cheering for me. I walked out of the place drunk with ecstasy, and spent the rest of the day in that condition.

My arm following blood donation

The arm of a hero.

The fear remained, though. I was just as afraid of the sight of blood as before. This was one of the several reasons why I signed up for a clinical experiment to test a new drug in Singapore. I was promised that blood samples would be taken a total of one hundred and fifty times over the course of six weeks while I was exposed to the drug. That was exactly what my fear needed. Initially I needed to lie down to avoid fainting when they poked my fingertip to get a blood sample. During the in-patient stays, they got more hardcore. They inserted tubes in both of my arms, and opened them when they needed some blood. They would have made very efficient vampires. The method really worked. First I got used to looking at the tubes when not in use, then I got comfortable with the process when they collected the samples. Perhaps the methodological approach helped, I am not sure. Now I almost crave blood donation. Not quite, but almost.

Dancing is another great source of fear. I had a brief affair with ballet when living in Ireland. I was interested in stretching and in dancing as a form of art. Yet, as I was the only male member of the group, I was forced to perform during the annual show after just a few months of doing ballet. It was a disaster, of course. Years later when I was learning salsa for social reasons, I noticed that I was afraid of dancing in front of other people, even if those people were just fellow salseros. A terrific opportunity came along, I had the chance to be in the student performance group for the Bangkok Salsa Fiesta. Months of training followed with the best instructors and the most patient dance partner who ever existed on this planet. There was a part of the choreography where the girl flipped around my arm. This presented an extra difficulty, my arm not being able to support anything heavier than a glass of carrot juice. I signed up to a high-end gym and got a personal trainer to help. I became a terrible carnivore, eating a large steak for lunch everyday, and a large meat-lover pizza for dinner. Having a workout five days a week, my mass increased by a meagre six kilos over the course of two months, but that was sufficient to support my otherwise wonderfully featherlight dance partner. The day of the performance came. As the other performers were arriving, I could not help noticing how much more confident and professional they looked than scrawny me. My dread was increasing all the way until our time came. The moment we started walking out on the stage, it was gone, and my attention had a firm grip on what I had to do. Minor screw ups happened, but nothing major, I did not drop my dance partner while she flipped around. My boogie was about as hot as that of a praying mantis, but people were looking at my lovely dance partner anyway. I made my effort and I enjoyed the result. Perseverance pays off.

Salsa student performance at the Bangkok Salsa Fiesta

Fear not, baldy, just dance.

Thinking is the best friend of fear. The more you think the more you fear. I met a fantastic guy on a crazy long bus ride across the Sahara, and he invited me to stay at his place in Ouagadougou. We were exploring the nearby sights together. I spotted that there was a tiny village just an hour away with a small lake filled with sacred crocodiles. We headed there, and we were quite lucky, we were the only visitors. We made a deal, and got a guide and a chicken to sacrifice for about four euros. The guide tied the live chicken to a long stick, and lured huge crocodiles out of the lake by teasing them with the chicken. He got five-six crocodiles out of the water, but there were no more coming, so we crossed the embankment and looked for a specimen in the marshland.

A nomadic mathematician squating over a crocodile

Notice the chicken in the bottom right. My avian friend no longer had any fear. Death helps.

What a specimen we found! A huge and apparently very hungry crocodile crawled out of the shallow water, and snapped after the chicken. The chicken got a heart attack some time ago, and it was quite dead at this point. The guide took the chicken off the stick and placed it about two meter in front of the crocodile. The crocodile locked its eyes on the carcass. Then he walked up to the beast and started poking its side, then told me to follow suit. I skipped thinking, and boldly poked the reptile. Then he poked it from below, to show that its belly was soft. Fear was mounting, but I did the same thing. The crocodile was still hypnotized by the dead chicken. Then came the moment when I thought the guy would soon vanish in the belly of the gigantic crocodile. He squatted over it, pausing for a photo. The crocodile did not give a damn. Then, of course, it was my turn. I made a very serious effort not to think, and half squatted over the crocodile. For some reason, I was convinced that I could poke the crocodile’s eyes out and make a lucky escape should it change its mind and decide to eat me. The photo was taken and we retreated. The guide threw the chicken to the crocodile, and it caught it in the air with a split-second snapping motion. That was the moment it dawned on me how incredibly dangerous the whole situation was, and all the repressed fear was released in one outburst of adrenaline. Later I watched crocodiles eating men on Youtube. I learned that you should not watch videos on Youtube and you should skip thinking all together to live a fearless life.

I made progress in understanding fear. Unless you face a crocodile or a predatory animal of similar proportions, there is no reason to it. The vast majority of things that humans can get involved with in the 21st century do not present any kind of danger. For most of us, fear is redundant, and should be removed by genetic engineering from future generations. The unengineered genotype that I am, I have to continue living in awkward fearfulness till the day I drop dead.

3 Comments

  1. Savita says:

    This is quite a candid writeup with a right dose of humor, keep it up peter:-)

  2. Barbers says:

    […] The efficiency of his manoeuvres with the scissors was low, but after an hour, he announced my hairdo ready. I dared not to comment on it. He then lathered me up, fished out a used blade from the same place where the scissors emerged from, and continued the verbal daydreaming. In the end, I duly bled from uniformly distributed blood sources on the shaveable area of my face. I also made a note of checking the HIV rate in the region, that blade was probably the most dangerous item I ever came to contact  in my life, discounting a hungry crocodile. […]

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