The Most Dangerous Thing You Can Do: Stay Safe

Something funny happened to me a few years back. I was living in Flagstaff at the time, and contemplating a visit to the Grand Canyon. But the idea of standing at the lip of that mile-deep crack in the ground gave me fluttery feelings in my belly and repeatedly spooked me away from actually going there and exploring it.

I realized what I was doing, and thought it would be interesting to make a list of things that had scared me in the past.

Bull riding scared me. Skiing off Rock Jump scared me. Asking Scarlet Jones for a date back in high school scared me (so much that I never did it). Speaking in public scared me. Parachuting out of a plane scared me. Asking for a raise scared me. A big, ugly biker guy once threw a head-sized rock at my dogs and I called him a bully and a coward in front of his girlfriend – and what happened afterward REALLY scared me.

But all those things had been years ago.

The question that came to me was “When is the last time I did something I was really afraid of?”

Wow. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t been afraid of anything in a long time. I’d been deliberately living well inside the boundaries of my fears. Rather than pushing beyond the edge, trying something new, I existed in a perpetual Safe Zone, staying well back from that dangerous edge. I simply had not tried anything potentially scary. In YEARS.

I was … well, disappointed in myself.

This was not long after that woman sued McDonald’s after spilling hot coffee in her lap, and I’d even written something at the time about all the attorneys, judges and lawsuit-happy whiners who were gradually closing us all in with safety barriers, glass enclosures, velvet ropes and a vast body of unwritten law that basically says “Your life is your own only until you enter the statistical no-man’s-land of You Might Get Hurt, but then your butt belongs to insurance companies, courts and government agencies. We can’t let you risk it.”

And here I’d been, all unknowing, doing the same thing to myself. Cowering safe inside the velvet ropes, failing to venture out into the wider world where I might learn something. Where I might grow.

I made some changes, and started getting scared again.

I took the mule ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and was so scared in places I felt woozy. (Picture a 4-foot-wide path, a 500-foot-cliff under your left stirrup, a smooth rock face just off your right, and nothing between you and a LONG screaming fall but the sure-footedness of an animal whose IQ can’t even be measured on the human scale.)

I went on one of those treetop ropes courses and got pretty spooked at walking a slender cable over a 65-foot-deep gully. I signed up for a class in stand-up comedy and ended up clutching a mike for 5 minutes in front of an expectant audience of about 70 people (they laughed!). I went parasailing. I put myself in vulnerable territory by writing, publishing and promoting my book. I also gutted up and started telling people – most of them, anyway, and whenever the subject of religion came up – about being an atheist.

So. How about you?

When’s the last time you thought seriously about reciting your poetry in front of a crowd? Singing karaoke in a bar? Slipping off all your clothes and sinking down into a natural hot spring with strangers? Jumping out of a plane? Starting to learn  American Sign Language and striking up conversations with deaf people? Coming out to your friends and family as an atheist?

If you’re tired of living your life, and nothing better than your life, take my advice and do this:

Be afraid. Be very afraid.




(By the way, if you’re interested in CONTINUING to live your life, take this other piece of advice too: The next time you get annoyed with one of those big, ugly biker dudes, stand well back behind the velvet ropes and forget everything I just told you.)


This was cool: Pictures from a fear-related Halloween story.


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  • fastlane

    I hiked the GC in 2001, but I don’t have a fear of heights. Hiked down the South Kaibab trail, spent two days at the bottom, and hiked up the Angel Falls trail.

    I’m getting a track bike (motorcycle) and I’m going to take up racing next year. That’s something that will get you plenty scared about 10 times/minute. :D

    • Woof

      You might get more quality scares on the street, courtesy of oblivious cage pilots…

  • raymoscow

    I started working on another university degree in a subject I hadn’t studied before — and I’ve found that I’m not as smart as I thought I was. I’ve had to work really hard just to pass the damn stuff.

    But I’m learning it.

  • michael

    All day everyday on the computer, surfing the Net. I love it. I do get scared though, by the thought that I may lose my Internet connection.

  • Cor (formerly evil)

    I’m a working-class American. Scared shitless all day, every day.

  • The Pale Scot

    Danger Mouse Rules, and why does Mitch McConnell look like Penfold?

  • davidct

    The thing about those ugly bikers is that they can be hell to wash out of the wheel-well of my 1-ton. Just kidding.

    Actually it is good to push the limits of our comfort zone. Of course sometimes the memories are better than the panic of the moment.

    Cheers from a heathen.

  • Nice Ogress

    It is a favorite aphorism of my surviving parent that “If you are very careful, and take absolutely NO risks, nothing bad (or good) will ever happen to you.”

    Risks I’ve taken more-or-less recently:
    – Moving six states away to a place where I knew one (1) person, and that only through the internet.
    – Recirculating my art resume again, even though I had a crummy-but-stable job in retail.
    – Agreeing to meet strangers at the local game store to put together a group for D&D (yes, yes, let the nerd-hazing commence).
    – Agitating with a few like-minded souls at the local anti-government protests, often till late at night.
    – Traveling the length of the state to collect recall signatures against a republican pol in his own district.

    All totally worth it. Life is good.

  • feralboy12, der Ken-Puppe Sie außerhalb in 1983 verlassen

    I have always been afraid of tying pillows around myself and letting a train hit me. Your post has inspired me to face my fear and rise above it.

  • khms

    I’m mostly afraid of either things that happen to me without any choice being involved, or the results of acting stupid. Given that, I fail to see why I should court either, or what positive thing I could possibly learn that way. Especially as there are lots of other ways to learn things.

  • Andrew Hall

    The first time I did stand-up comedy wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be. It’s the fear of the fear that cripples people.

    • John Morales

      It’s the fear of the fear that cripples people.


      I thought it was the fear of the fear of the fear that cripples people.

      No, wait.

      It’s I thought it was the fear of the fear of the fear of the fear that cripples people.

      NO, wait!

    • Lou Doench

      The first time I did stand up I was not afraid enough! I ran 5 minutes long and Roger Naylor had to drag me off the stage… then I became afraid.

  • geocatherder

    I gave up a well-paying career after two and a half decades because I couldn’t stand it any more. (It helped that I’d just been laid off.) Now I’ve retrained for another career, in geology; my MS thesis is due 10/31. Mind you, I don’t expect to get a regular job — nobody hires 50-year-olds in Silicon Valley — but I should be able to make some money as a contract worker in GIS. I hope. I’m scared, I’ve been scared the whole time I’ve been in school. But there was a chance to do what I should have done years ago, and I took it.

    Speaking of schooling, I was terrified of public speaking when I started back to school. But my school’s geology department is determined that every graduate will be able to stand up and give a coherent presentation… and every damn class I took required one… and every one was a little easier than the previous one. So now I have no fear of public speaking!!!

    • sparky-ca

      As it happens, I might know of an opening for a geologist in Monterey…

  • fastlane

    – Agreeing to meet strangers at the local game store to put together a group for D&D (yes, yes, let the nerd-hazing commence).

    D&D nerds of the world unite!

    • Aliasalpha

      You have nothing to lose but your: (Roll 1D6)

      1: Chains
      2: Dice
      3: Character Sheet
      4: Inhibitions
      5: +2 Flail
      6: Entire evening bickering with that one dickhead party member who just HAS to be a powergaming rules lawyer rather than just playing the damned game

      • Nice Ogress


        It’s like we’ve played in the same group!

  • Robert

    I lost my fear of public speaking after attempting to teach physics to a class of 30 14-year-olds. No way anything could possibly get worse than that.

    It also taught me never to try that again, and gave me a great respect for anyone who succeeds at it.

  • F


    I have always been afraid of tying pillows around myself and letting a train hit me. Your post has inspired me to face my fear and rise above it.

    Inversion Therapy™ really works!

  • Aliasalpha

    Recently I decided to do 2 things that sort of scared me

    Firsty I went back to the gym after a long absence, turns out that even with the added weight I had I’d not lost as much fitness as I thought & am presently down 20kg from when I started 5 months back and I now need smaller pants. Very little feels better to a fat guy than being able to say that.

    Second was plucking up the courage to ask a girl out. I was seeing this podiatrist (professionally) to get my messed up feet workking properly again and she was cute & funny and laughed at my stupid jokes so before my final checkup appointment I decided to try and ask her out. Of course just as I was thinking of a way to segue the conversation, she mentioned that she was moving interstate quite soon so it was kind of pointless. Ultimately its not very likely she’d have said yes or even been single but it was still a psychological victory for me to be that close to doing it.

    • Nice Ogress


      Having a pleasant date with someone you like is NEVER pointless. Even if you know there’s not going to be any ‘long-term’ benefits. To put it in D&D terms, not every adventure has to be part of a campaign – sometimes the one-shot episodes are just as good.

      One should never be afraid of failure. Or success!

  • AlanMacandCheese

    I hear ya. Same for me in Canada. The place I work at is closing soon, nobody knows when for sure, but could be tomorrow, or next year, but definitely by the end of next year. The industry, (bulk 35mm film feature film printing and processing), is winding down. But , to hell with it, I’m off to buy a 2006 Jeep Cherokee in case it’s time to hit the road…again.

  • roland72

    10 years ago I decided it was time to do something scary, so (at the age of 29, not having really done much sport before) I took up rugby. Never played to a very high standard but I really enjoyed it and it made me a much more adventurous person. Have played on and off ever since; should still have a couple of seasons left in me assuming I don’t get injured again.

    The other scary thing I did was to organise and conduct a classical concert a couple of years ago. There is no place scarier than a conductor’s rostrum in a rehearsal with competent musicians – there is absolutely nowhere to hide! That’s one place where you simply must know your material; I’d never done so much homework in my life.

    I still find personal conflict very scary (an old, old problem) and my desire to avoid it at almost all costs has cost me a lot of pain at a personal and professional level; if I’m forced into any even slightly unpleasant situation I can panic quite badly and say very stupid things. I would so love to be able to overcome that.

  • Chris Reynolds

    I like it. I was badly bullied as child and tend to avoid situations where I might be verbally attacked. When I started to do some unconventional research I was reluctant to push it too hard because it attracted unfair criticism from the establishment. Finally, when the prospects looked good, I folded because of a bullying head of department.

    Some 20 years late of “playing safe” by ignoring my research, I have discovered it may fill an existing hole in the evolution of intelligence and have started to blog about it. I have decided to take the risk of exposing myself on the web (via my blog)

    It will be interesting to see if others can escape the “all noteworthy research is done at large institutions in the last year” box and actually look at what I am doing seriously.

  • kennypo65

    I have been scuba diving for many years now. On my 40th birthday I was diving on a section of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef when I suddenly found myself surrounded by hammerhead sharks. They were everywhere. I was scared shitless. After a few minutes I noticed that they were ignoring me. I could swim among them with impunity and I was no longer afraid. Now I look for sharks when diving, and enjoy their company. I’m careful, but not fearful. The experience is exciting and humbling. You never feel more alive than at those times where you could die any moment.

  • A Rice

    I have done a few things that scared me but I’ve mostly overcome them. Many things the would terrify others don’t bother me at all (caving, heights, public speaking, etc).

    The first time driving my race car scared me a lot. Years later, crashing at 195Mph didn’t scare me at all but I am nervous every time I’m strapped in.

  • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    This Saturday while at a festival in Rhinebeck, the group I am attending with are going to a dinner and we’re wearing nice clothing. Instead of wearing my typical button-down shirt and slacks, I am going to be wearing a skirt, a fancy top, heels, and makeup.

    It’s terrifying to do, and I fear I’m not as good-looking as I think I am, but I have to do it because it’s who I am.

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