Do one thing every day that scares you – Eleanor Roosevelt
What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done? Or another way to say it, what’s the most dangerous thing that you’ve ever done?
That’s how Chris Hadfield started his Ted Talk. Most people had probably never heard about him until he was ready to leave the International Space Station. I think he’s the only one to get permission from David Bowie to record one of his songs, and the result was a marvelous version of Space Oddity.
Chris Hadfield decribes a situation that would have been incredibly scary if he had not trained on everything NASA could think of that could go wrong. On his first space walk his left eye went blind. He thought it was a tear at first, but it turned out to be the anti fog they use. It was painful and he couldn’t open his eye. The problem is that you can’t cry in space. Tears don’t fall without gravity, so this liquid on his eye kept building to a bigger and bigger ball, and eventually it moved across the bridge of his nose. That made him blind on both eyes, which is a potentially stressful situation to find yourself in.
That answers the question about what the scariest thing Chris Hadfield has ever done. He compares any fear to an irrational fear of spiders. There are literally just a handful of the 50 000 species of spiders in the world that are venomous. Still many people in a cold climate, where a spider is very unlikely to kill you, are terrified of those little things. I like Hadfield’s way of putting it:
The danger is entirely different than the fear.
How do you get over this irrational fear? Hadfield’s advice works in a cold climate where he comes from, but I understand what he means. The point is that if you face your fears, you are most likely to find that it was irrational. He said in this presentation that if you walk through a hundred spider webs you will probably change your behaviour and not panic next time you see a spider. That’s because it won’t take you long time to realize that the risk wasn’t as high as you assumed.
If you analyze the situation, what are the risks of being killed or seriously harmed by a spider? It’s not very high, and even in warmer climates where there clearly are more venomous creatures, the odds are pretty good. Most creatures that carry venom even warn you with bright colours.
It sounds very easy, but it isn’t. I think I have written about my encounter with a giant cockroach in a shower at the University of Arkansas once. I was terrified and couldn’t finish my shower while that thing was making it’s way along the wall. It was clear enough that it wasn’t interested in me, or any of the other guys that were in the shower at the time. In this case it may have been wise to keep a distance because I assume that this roach had been in some pretty dirty places before it found its way to the shower. The point is still a valid one, the danger wasn’t nearly as high as my brain perceived it to be. I chose to take a step back, while the other guys didn’t move. Both decisions worked, but of course I was the only one feeling miserable and with a pounding heart. That’s what Hadfield calls a caveman reaction.
This is sort of what NASA do. They walk through spider webs and that makes the astronauts remain calm. Hadfield didn’t panic because he knew he had walked through many of the same type of spider webs before. The Canadian astronaut raised an interesting question. If we look at the difference between perceived danger and actual danger, what is the real risk? What is the real thing that you should be afraid of? Because he conquered his fears he was able to see beauty only a few people get to witness. We could all see and do extraordinary things if we walked through spider webs, but there is a reason few people do. This is hard.
I love science (especially astronomy) and I love music. I find it astonishing that this man’s version of the old David Bowie hit, and his experience of going blind in space, has inspired so many people. I have many fears myself. I really want to walk through a hundred spider webs for every single one. That is probably not going to happen, but I think I can manage some of them.
I might tell you about some of my fears and victories later. There are some major spider webs and rewards on the horizon.