As a teenager, there was nothing I loved more than camping. I spent many summers away from home at Boy Scout camps in New Hampshire. Most Boy Scouts go to camp with their troops, so they already know who they’re camping with. For kids who came alone, they were put together in a temporary troop known as “Provisional” or “Provo” for short.
One year, and under the supervision of an actual adult, I was in charge of Provo and was responsible for the campers’ well-being. Many of them had never camped before, and that meant it was their first time living without electricity. It also meant that the 200’ walk to the outhouse though the thick forest in the middle of the night was terrifying.
As a child, I was afraid of the dark as many kids are. It didn’t take long for me realize it was an irrational fear—the things in the dark are the same things that are there in the light—but emotionally, that didn’t matter. If I had to walk through a dark room, especially an unknown one, I’d tense up and overreact to any stimulus.
At some point during my camping experience, late night nature calls being inevitable, I taught myself two techniques to deal with these emotions. They were so effective that I taught them to the campers under my charge as well.
First, see in the dark as much as you can. Turn off your flashlight, and close your eyes. Count to 10 slowly. When you open your eyes, your pupils will have dilated as much as possible, and you’ll be seeing at your best. Use the flashlight sparingly.
This is a practical technique as much as a psychological one. The flashlight and its moving, angled light makes things look more scary.
Second, you are now the monster. You are the most dangerous thing in the forest. This is your dark, where you are the master. Anything meeting up with you is in big trouble.
That may sound silly, but i found it fairly effective. Like any psychological trick, it worked as well as you could believe in it, and I learned to believe in it quite well. Perhaps… too well, perhaps.
A couple of years later, I was in college studying to be a professional Boy Scout. That’s a story for another time. One of my favorite professors asked me to participate in a 10K run, and having run track in high school, I agreed.
The event was coming up, and I hadn’t done nearly enough training. I had a very full class schedule, and only had free time at night, so I forced myself to run then. On empty roads. In rural West Virginia. In the dark.
I didn’t use a flashlight, and if I felt that creepy feeling welling up, I’d imagine myself as the scariest thing out there. This was fine, as I was nearly always the ONLY thing out there. And then there was the time I wasn’t.
I was running up a hill, around a bend when I saw something in the road. Before I had time to figure out what it was, I took off after it. This wasn’t a decision I’d made; my “be the scariest thing” had flipped my fight or flight response full to fight, and I was running as fast as I could after some vaguely animal-like shape.
i remember thinking “what the hell am I doing?” as I grew in determination to catch this thing. I was angry at it. It had invaded my space. It must pay.
Fortunately for the “thing,” it was much more suited to fleeing than I was to chasing, and it soon lost me in the bushes. It turned out to be a rabbit, a creature more afraid of the light than the dark.
I stopped a bit to catch my breath, and wondered whether my fear-avoiding strategy should be used with caution. Would I have done the same thing if it was a bear? Or a person? I don’t think so, but I didn’t expect to take off after a rabbit either.
Decades later, I find I have a much better technique for dealing with the dark. I’ve wandered through the Amazon Rainforest and the woods of New Zealand in near total darkness and loved every minute. This would have absolutely terrified me as a child, but now any trace of hesitation I might have is easily overwhelmed by the curiosity of won dering what’s out there. I know I’m not the scariest thing in the woods, and I don’t care. It’s exhilarating having a bat swoop by your ear so close that you can feel the wind from its wings. There’s nothing the least bit scary about it.
Curiosity conquers fear, though it’s probably harder to teach to a scared kid than the “be scarier” technique. But if you can start with curiosity, it may be that you’ll never be afraid in the first place.