How to be a Little Less Afraid of the World (advice from Jack London)

JLbiographyI’m in the process of writing a post about how I overcame my fear of flying on airplanes. (note: the past tense version of the verb in that last sentence is a bit of a lie. A more truthful sentence would have ended like this: “about how I am overcoming my fear of flying.”) Until I can get around to writing my own thoughts on conquering irrational fears, I wanted to share the most compelling piece of writing I’ve ever seen about how to be a little less afraid of the world.

Jack London is one of my go-to mentors for manliness, and what follows below is a snippet from his memoir about sailing around the world, The Cruise of the Snark (I think I originally found this quote on the Art of Manliness blog).

This powerful passage helped me get on an airplane recently for the first time in 10+ years. How as my flight? It was fine. Jack was right. I was more alive at 30,000 feet than I would have been sitting at home on my couch. I’m flying again this Sunday and a few more times this year.

So without further ado, if you’re dealing with fear or anxiety today, take some advice from old Jack.

Life that lives is life successful, and success is the breath of its nostrils.  The achievement of a difficult feat is successful adjustment to a sternly exacting environment.  The more difficult the feat, the greater the satisfaction at its accomplishment.  Thus it is with the man who leaps forward from the springboard, out over the swimming pool, and with a backward half-revolution of the body, enters the water head first.  Once he leaves the springboard his environment becomes immediately savage, and savage the penalty it will exact should he fail and strike the water flat.  Of course, the man does not have to run the risk of the penalty.  He could remain on the bank in a sweet and placid environment of summer air, sunshine, and stability.  Only he is not made that way.  In that swift mid-air moment he lives as he could never live on the bank.

As for myself, I’d rather be that man than the fellows who sit on the bank and watch him.  That is why I am building the Snark.  I am so made.  I like, that is all.  The trip around the world means big moments of living. The trip around the world means big moments of living.  Bear with me a moment and look at it.  Here am I, a little animal called a man—a bit of vitalized matter, one hundred and sixty-five pounds of meat and blood, nerve, sinew, bones, and brain,—all of it soft and tender, susceptible to hurt, fallible, and frail.  I strike a light back-handed blow on the nose of an obstreperous horse, and a bone in my hand is broken.  I put my head under the water for five minutes, and I am drowned.  I fall twenty feet through the air, and I am smashed.  I am a creature of temperature.  A few degrees one way, and my fingers and ears and toes blacken and drop off.  A few degrees the other way, and my skin blisters and shrivels away from the raw, quivering flesh.  A few additional degrees either way, and the life and the light in me go out.  A drop of poison injected into my body from a snake, and I cease to move—for ever I cease to move.  A splinter of lead from a rifle enters my head, and I am wrapped around in the eternal blackness.

Fallible and frail, a bit of pulsating, jelly-like life—it is all I am.  About me are the great natural forces—colossal menaces, Titans of destruction, unsentimental monsters that have less concern for me than I have for the grain of sand I crush under my foot.  They have no concern at all for me.  They do not know me.  They are unconscious, unmerciful, and unmoral.  They are the cyclones and tornadoes, lightning flashes and cloud-bursts, tide-rips and tidal waves, undertows and waterspouts, great whirls and sucks and eddies, earthquakes and volcanoes, surfs that thunder on rock-ribbed coasts and seas that leap aboard the largest crafts that float, crushing humans to pulp or licking them off into the sea and to death—and these insensate monsters do not know that tiny sensitive creature, all nerves and weaknesses, whom men call Jack London, and who himself thinks he is all right and quite a superior being.

In the maze and chaos of the conflict of these vast and draughty Titans, it is for me to thread my precarious way.  The bit of life that is I will exult over them.  The bit of life that is I, in so far as it succeeds in baffling them or in bitting them to its service, will imagine that it is godlike.  It is good to ride the tempest and feel godlike.  I dare to assert that for a finite speck of pulsating jelly to feel godlike is a far more glorious feeling than for a god to feel godlike.

Here is the sea, the wind, and the wave.  Here are the seas, the winds, and the waves of all the world.  Here is ferocious environment.  And here is difficult adjustment, the achievement of which is delight to the small quivering vanity that is I.  I like.  I am so made.

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