When I was three years old, my mother tried to leave me at preschool, but I was so scared of strangers that I kicked and fought until I made myself physically ill. When I was four, I started school and the same problem continued. Through the days I was afraid of people and germs, and at night it was dinosaurs, cannibals, and the thought that I would spend eternity burning in Hell, held aloft on spiked tridents wielded by grotesque beasts with red skin. Thank you, Church of England First School, for your indoctrinations laid upon me.
Thus, I was always afraid. The list of things that scared me only grew as I did.
With each passing year, I found that the best escape was the world of computer games. In the virtual world, I was safe. I could be a superhero, I could die and come back to life, I could create a world in a way that I wanted it to be. It was not at all like the great, big scary world that I had to live in on a day to day basis. The biggest problem with living in this virtual world, was that I couldn’t do it all of the time. I had to go to school and attempt (unsuccessfully) to interact with people – I was a quiet kid, a shy kid… an almost mute kid?!
In school however, you can get away with being a quiet kid. We all have our roles to fill and we can do our best to blend into the background if we so desire – there are always other people willing to step forward and fill the limelight. But the problem with this, is that it is not a fun existence. Dodging from shadow to shadow, attempting to avoid detection, is not a life for anyone.
As I finished high school, I had begun to ask myself why it was that I was afraid. I can’t be sure, but I think it started when I was taught of Hell and how I would be punished for living a bad life. Everything before that time had been so perfect in the world that my parents had created for me. But then again, maybe it was just part of me as I was already afraid of strangers in preschool. I began to ask myself, ‘how can I stop being afraid?’ The simple answer is that I can’t. Fear is a natural impulse, designed to keep us safe. However, I began to realise that fear can be managed. One way I like to conceptualise fear, is as a little pink ghost:
“Fear is a little pink ghost that has the ability to change into any form more terrifying than your worst nightmares could even dream up. He can cripple you, taking everything. When he is around, you are falling constantly, a bottomless journey of no end. You have three choices of how you can deal with this little pink ghost. Firstly, you can run and you can hide. He will always be chasing you, he will always be looking for you. One day he will find you. Secondly, you can punch him in the face. Fear roars at you, you roar right back. It is a simple matter of who roars loudest. And lastly, you can embrace him and you can hold his hand. You walk with fear and you accept him for the little pink ghost that he is, always knowing that he is there, but keeping him in your sight.”
— Excerpt from The Boy Who Was Afraid of the World
Ultimately, I chose that I would have to walk hand in hand with my fear. I began by leaving my parents’ home at the age of eighteen. I ended up working in a supermarket bakery and living in a leaky caravan, running across a frozen field in the dark each morning to take a shower. It was not a dream start, but it taught me that I could at least have a hope of fending for myself. Then came journeys into the dangerous world, the world outside the UK. I began by taking flights and buses, then staying in hostels. Despite the news telling me how terrible the world was, I started to find that it was in fact, rather wonderful.
This slow progression continued for the next few years, pushing myself when I could, but always accepting that I was afraid and letting myself be afraid. It took me across the world to many new places, but often in the same way.
In 2012, I was twenty-five years old and held a Masters Degree in Mathematics. I had obtained this degree because teachers had told me that studying maths leads to a good job and a comfortable life and I wouldn’t want anything else. Despite being far more interested in creative subjects, I was too scared to study what I really wanted — in hindsight, it kills me that I dropped art at the age of 14 in place of an I.T. course based around using Microsoft Office. As I was living a life that was not true to myself, I decided I couldn’t continue along the same path anymore. I couldn’t keep doing things that I didn’t want to do because I was told to do them.
Without the extended specifics, a year of teaching English in Korea and a drunken revelation in Japan led me to this thought: “I want to travel long and far, with no end date, no looking back.”
With limited money, this was not a wise idea and it terrified me, but I set off from a rundown fuel station in the UK with a backpack, wielding my thumb as a method of transport. After ten minutes, I was on the brink of giving up, embarrassed at the people who might laugh at me, only for a van to pull over and give me my first hitchhiking ride. At this point, I was hoping to travel into Europe for a couple of weeks, maybe even a month or two. Due to the wonderful people I met and learning that you don’t need money to survive, this journey continued for the next six months across twenty-four countries. I learnt that it is OK to sleep outside at night, that I can survive on only a couple of pounds a day, but mostly, that everything is going to be OK. Everything is always going to be OK. Until it’s not.
Since that time, I cycled 1,000 miles across Europe on a £30 bicycle (despite people telling me I needed an expensive bicycle and to be super fit), rafted down the Danube on a homemade raft (despite being told that I would die if I did such a thing), and walked coast to coast across Iceland with my brother (despite the unrelenting gales, driving snow, and having never walked more than ten miles before doing so). People will tell you that things are impossible, but another thing that I have learnt, is that people can only advise you based upon what they would or wouldn’t do. When our raft nearly got hit by a large boat, I was afraid. When my brothers toes went a little bit too green after crossing glacial rivers and we struggled to get warm, I was very afraid. But these things turned out OK because rather than being rabbits in headlights, we reacted and we battled to make ourselves safe again. Now we live on for new adventures and we dare to push ourselves just a little bit more each time we do something new – but not too much.
I am still afraid and I always will be – just less so than ever before. Rather than defeating fear, I chose to accept it, to walk with it, and in this way, I find my life to be an enjoyable one. I hope you can do the same.
Author Bio: Jamie Bowlby–Whiting is the creator of Great Big Scary World where he shares his adventures through stories, photos, and videos. He has published a book, The Boy Who Was Afraid of the World, which is a true story of fear and hitchhiking, covering the six months that he spent on the road in Europe. You can follow him via Facebook or Twitter.