A few years ago, I went to the zoo with my sister and my nephew, Oliver, who was about 7 at the time. He was excited to go into the ape house. But while we were there, something really frightening happened. The glass for the gorilla’s enclosure was weirdly-shaped, so it was difficult to see him from certain angles. I went up very close to the glass, trying to locate him, so I could show Oliver a good view. I was about an inch away from the glass, with no peripheral vision, when all of a sudden, the gorilla jumped right in front of me, screaming and pounding angrily on the glass by my face. Logically, I knew that the glass was there to protect me, and he couldn’t have hurt me. Evolutionarily, there was a giant angry gorilla two inches from my face, and my nervous system jumped into fight-or-flight…mainly flight.
After a few minutes on the other side of the ape house, next to the big mellow orangutan, I was able to calm down. Oliver, however, was still terrified. Seeing his fear made me realize what I had to do. I told him I was going back over to see the gorilla, and asked if he wanted to come with me. He refused, but I went anyway.
Needless to say, the stupid gorilla was now playing through the glass with an adorable toddler, but people were still talking about how he attacked some girl earlier. They recognized me, and were surprised to see that I was back, but I wasn’t back for me; I came back to try to teach Oliver about overcoming fears.
That’s something I’ve learned over the years—I’m always braver when my nephew is around. When we are both scared to try something new, I use his fear as motivation to overcome mine. I want him to remember, at some future date, that his aunt didn’t let her fear stop her from trying something new. Maybe then, he’ll be more willing to try new things, despite his fear.
I think this is true for most children. We, as adults, want to teach them that fear is something to be conquered, not left to fester. So I’m more willing to ride a scary ride, or try a new food, or even kill a spider (which if you knew me, you would know what a big deal that is!), if I know that overcoming my own fear is going to help someone else overcome theirs.
And most of our little fears are in our minds. The next time I saw that gorilla, if you remember, he was eating a cardboard box and scratching himself. Hardly fear-inducing. Most things, given enough time and space, become more ridiculous than scary. Many times, it’s children’s fearlessness that motivates us to branch out, but we’ve been here longer, so every once in a while, it’s our responsibility to show them that the world is not a scary place. That is powerful motivation to overcome our own fear.