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Fear and Faith

Jeb Corliss is a wing suit flyer. These folks jump off high cliffs, spread their arms and legs and “fly” in their special suit until they pull their parachute to land. They go up to 220 mph when flying. A lot of them die.

Corliss said that when he stands on the cliff he is as fearful as the next person, but he has learned to manage his fear. I am reminded of Alex Honold, the fellow who climbed Mt. Capitan in Yellowstone Park, the massive stone faced cliff. He did this in one day, without any safety devices. Any “wrong’ move and he would fall to his death.

How does Honold deal with fear? Fear or anxiety registers in the amygdala of the brain. Neurologists have placed people in scanning machines and have shown them “scary” pictures. The amygdala “lights up” when the people see these pictures. Honold’s amygdala response is there, but very much muted relative to others.

What few people realize is that before Honold made his climb, he had rehearsed every move on the route many times. For two years he had rappelled down the cliff to various sections to practice. He did this with safety ropes. When he began his climb he knew exactly where his hands and feet were going to go. At one point he notes he did feel anxiety as he stood on a ledge ¾ of the way up. He commented, I just put my mind to what I had to do next.

The pre-frontal cortex of the brain is where we have our cognitive thoughts. When the amygdala is “on fire” with anxiety, the pre-frontal cortex can “calm it down.” In essence the pre-frontal cortex says to the amygdala – “We have done this many times before, we know what we are doing, we have practiced, all will be well.” This is what transpired for Honold to calm down his momentary anxiety. Note well – his pre-frontal cortex could calm down the amygdala because he had rehearsed and practiced. Without all that practice it might have been a different story.

Back to Corliss. Corliss had an accident when “flying.” He hit the rock with his foot. He managed to survive. When asked how this happened, Corliss responded – “I lost my fear.” Fear motivated Honold to practice and said practice equipped his prefrontal cortex to calm down the fear response. But if the fear subsides too much, we can get careless. I suspect this is what Corliss was referring to. His pre-frontal cortex got overconfident.

Faith and fear are usually juxtaposed. Faith can be empowering, trust God – God will be my strength. Some people did this with the covid virus and did not bother with masks or vaccines. That was not a good idea. Some became ill. Some died.

On the other side, fear can be so strong as to leave us paralyzed. This is not good either.

Find the balance and remember Corliss – a little fear can be a good thing.

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