Fear is life’s only true opponent, Pi of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi tells us. And he should know.
After a storm on the high seas claims the lives of his zookeeper family and (almost) their entire herd of wild animals, he lands in a lifeboat. For 227 consecutive days, he battles to see the next morning with the only other survivor, a bengal tiger.
[Fear] is life’s only true opponent, Pi tells us. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease.
For most of us, the weakest spot is the unknown.
You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon [your fear], Pi explains.
Because…if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.
There is a positive correlation, it seems, between the degree of unknown and the paralyzing impact of fear.
There is also a positive correlation between time lapsed in an endurance race and the number of unknowns encountered.
The rain, the wind, the flu, the accuracy of bottle handoffs, the number of tacks in the road, the rate of rainfall versus the speed at which sewers overflow.
These are the unknowns in endurance racing. These are the fears that Pi instructs us to identify, to name, to become so familiar with that they cannot exist in the “wordless darkness.”
But in racing, as in life, there are simply too many unknowns to separate out, to name, to categorize, to label.
And so it goes, that we prepare for everything, and then accept that we can’t prepare for everything.
And then we prepare for that.
So how exactly does one prepare for what one can’t prepare for?
In a word, travel.
To a place that’s hard to find on a map. To a destination devoid of your comfort foods, where transportation and promises aren’t delivered on time, and where you have to relearn all the things you take for granted—how to communicate, how to eat, how to shower, and if you’re lucky—how to use the toilet.
In joining the Peace Corps, I had to temper my fear of the unknown. I didn’t know where they would send me, what I would do there, what language I would speak, or how homesick I would get. To the extent that I could, I prepared for those unknowns. But nothing could have prepared me for what I encountered when I deplaned in Nepal. Even in an international airport, even in the country’s biggest city, it was hard to recognize that thing they called a toilet. And the toilet paper. Where in god’s name was the toilet paper?
Not long after I landed, my gregarious Peace Corps trainer taught me how to use a Nepali bathroom. That is, how to go without toilet paper. Because that is how I’d be going for the duration of my rural service.
So there it was, the first of many more times in that foreign land, I was forced to relearn a task I’d been operating on auto pilot for most of my life. Forced to reframe the way I think—about certain bodily fluids and my left hand and the strict boundary between the two.
So what do you do once you arrive in the unfamiliar land you’ve chosen as the battlefield between you and the unknown?
Rehearse meeting these unknowns, rehearse calming these uncomfortable feelings, rehearse facing these frustrations.
You rehearse meeting them not with the fear of the unknown, but with the fearless wonder of a child.
Because that is the attitude that will prepare you to face all that you can’t prepare for.
In a race.
In a relationship.
And that, like Pi explains, is how we defend ourselves against life’s only true opponent.