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by Craig Smith
   Several years ago, I went to an "unofficial" reunion of one of my old units. In the days leading up to it, I found myself thinking of people and times; some good, some not so good, some worse, and wondered whether I really wanted to go. I didn't, but for some strange
reason I went anyway.When I got to the bar where it was being held, the first person I saw was the last one I wanted to. This guy had been a jerk from birth, whose only redeeming feature was  that if he was on your side he might not shoot you. I had never known how he got into our unit, except that at that point you usually got either the truly committed or truly psychotic, and the mix was such that the difference wasn't always clear.
   This guy was a real section 8.  In the field, you never knew what he was going to do  He might be the perfect trooper one night, and start armageddon the next night just because he was bored. In the team room, he'd slide the clips in and out of his weapons, just 'cause he liked the way it sounded, or throw one of his knives into an old wooden door he had dragged in from somewhere, and drawn what he thought looked like a picture of Jane Fonda on it -- for hours.  Even in a "safe" bar, he'd sit in a corner, peeling labels and saying how easy it would be to "waste this guy" (some poor guy trying to bang cigarettes out of a machine) or "do that guy" (some other poor guy trying to get a date with a waitress). He loved jumping out of airplanes, blowing things up and being first through the door. He never ducked. He loved it.  And he loved looking good doing it.
   So when I saw him walking toward me, I wasn't happy. But it was too late. He walked up.  We shook. We made a few painful minutes of conversation, and then he looked at me and said, "You know Smith, we coulda got killed doin' soma that stuff."
   "No joke, jackass", I thought..
   To the outsider, this guy looked the epitome of courage -- total lack of fear. But what many people don't understand is that courage is not the lack of fear, but the overcoming of it. This guy had no courage, because he had no fear.
   I run into a lot of people these days who seem to be without any fear of anything at all.  They do crazy things, take crazy chances, never seeming to understand how thin the line between life and death can be. They'll redline a motorcycle they've never ridden before -- on a road the've never driven before. They'll get stone drunk in a border town wearing a Polo shirt and shorts. They mouth off to people they don't know. And they feel perfectly safe doing it, because most of them have never seen the more unpleasant effects that these causes can bring about. They feel brave, not realizing that their absence of fear is the definition of the difference between courage and stupidity.
   Without fear, it is impossible to develop the ability to overcome it. Without threat, and an understanding of that threat, there can be no fear. Therefore, there can be no overcoming of fear in the absence of real threat. And there lies the land of opportunity.
   There is nothing wrong with being afraid. It is not something to be ashamed of, and only those who are ashamed of it will say that it is -- all the time maintaining that they aren't afraid of anything (this is usually done when there is nothing around to be afraid of). The important thing is to recognize it for what it is, and deal with it -- because either you will deal with it, or it will deal with you.
   I grew up scared of just about everything. I had a great family who wanted life to be nice for me. My mother was nice, and wanted me to be nice. My father, who had seen enough violence during his war in Europe, wanted me to be nice. So I was a good boy. The first time another kid picked a fight with me, I tried to reason with him. Guess what happened? Next time, same thing. Pretty soon, the whole neighborhood knew me as an easy mark. The next five or six years was hell on earth. But every time I ducked or ran, it just solidified my own feeling of weakness and victimhood.
   Finally, something happened, and I started fighting back. My pendulum swung way too far the other way for a number of years before it finally settled to center, but I learned something very important from the whole experience -- that my fears had no basis in reality. I had lived through a hell that was entirely self-imposed.
   Fear, like any challenge, can be either a stumbling block or a stepping stone. The difference lies within the choice of the individual. Most people will turn away from the things that frighten them, and thereby allow their fear to turn them away from experiences and opportunities that are only available beyond the "comfort zone". That is sad, because it is beyond the "comfort zone" where so much of the best of life takes place. In fact, the comfort "line" often marks the difference between truly living and merely existing.
   Discomfort, of which fear is one of the greatest, is the fence -- physical, mental or emotional, that keeps people contained and limited. Discomfort is where most people stop.  Yet discomfort is subjective. Is it uncomfortable to be rained on? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends on how you feel about such relative matters as temperature, what you are wearing, etc.  But the reality  is the same -- rain is wet; you are dry; rain makes you wet. It is your subjective feeling about the situation that either lets you enjoy it, or gives it power over you by making you change your mood or behavior.
   If you can not only survive, but thrive within an enviroment that frightens or makes others uncomfortable, you will not only have the edge on them, but, more importantly, you will have expanded your area of comfort so as to allow you to experience and enjoy more things, and to function at a heightened degree for your own benefit. And even more important than that, you will have reached that point by developing your strength and will against the resistance of your own fears.
   There is an old remedy for a fear of snakes -- kill one and eat it. If you are still afraid, kill and eat another one. Pretty soon, you'll realize that it is they who should be afraid of you, not the other way around -- after all, who's afraid of their food? And it's the same with other fears.  Face them and deal with them one bite at a time.
   I don't know if it is possible for anyone to be totally without fear this side of heaven, except, again, for the totally committed or the totally psychotic. But I do know that fear can be friend or foe, and it's our choice that makes the difference.
Columns by Craig Smith
Stumbling block or stepping stone?