Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Fear as a Motivator

Two days ago I took my dogs down to the beach on Cape Cod Bay for a long walk.  Once we hit the sand, we have about half a mile of smooth walking before we hit an outcropping of large rocks that help to hold back the erosive tides.  The dogs ran free, and Paco sprinted at full speed for hundreds of yards after seagulls.  Once we got to the rock outcropping, I noticed a large black lump in the sand- a harbor seal.

In the past I've discovered dead beached seals in the same spot, and I was thinking I found another one when I saw its tail flippers pathetically rise up and flop back down to the sand.  It was still alive!  The tide was going out, and it had probably taken advantage of the beautiful day to sun itself, not realizing that hours had passed and its trek back to the water was getting more and more difficult.  By the time I found it it was dozens of feet from the shore, with hundreds of large rocks blocking its path.  It had given up on trying to get back to the safety of the water.

Without thinking, I quickly tied up the dogs as best I could to a large driftwood tree (they hadn't noticed it yet, thankfully) and headed over to the seal.  I kept my distance but could clearly see it was still kicking.  Seeing me, it hissed and barked in fear.  It looked just like an aquatic cousin of Zeke's-same size, sad brown eyes, and bovine expression.  Somehow I had to rescue it without endangering myself (do these things have rabies?  I don't know).

Clearly I couldn't roll it- it didn't look like it would enjoy that.  I grabbed a large stick about the size and shape of a baseball bat and touched it slowly to its front flipper.  It lurched from its side to its belly, and lunged toward the stick.  Great, I thought- I can goad and taunt it towards the water.  Positioning myself between it and the water, I annoyed it into progressing a few feet forward.  It was as if he suddenly remembered how to move around on land.

By this point the dogs had broken free and were rushing madly towards the confused seal.  I caught their leashes and thought "A-ha! Instead of taunting it forward I can scare it away using the dogs."  I held them about ten feet behind the seal as they fought the leash and lunged at the animal in a fit of crazed barking.  The seal picked up his pace and threw his sausage-like body awkwardly over the rocks.  It took him a good five minutes but he made it into to the water line and then slowly swam, exhausted but relieved, into the safety of the waves.

After I was over the exhilaration of the experience, I got to thinking about the role of fear as a motivator.  Here was this poor animal who had done nothing worse than take a nap at the wrong time and had woken up in a life-threatening situation.  By the time I found him he had mostly given up, only sadly flopping a flipper or two.  His heart was clearly not in it.  But that dullness in his eyes vanished and his motivation came back when he saw his first human and two berserk dogs.  Suddenly becoming a chew toy seemed like a worse fate than slowly dying in the sun.

Fear is a great motivator.  Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun, speaks of using the unpleasant parts of life as fuel to improve your situation.  Fear of losing your job can motivate you to better performance.  Fear of not being able to support your family might be the grounds for starting your own business.  Years ago my father heard a rumor his employer might be laying people off, and before they had a chance to get him, he quit and started his own business.  It ran successfully for over twenty years until he retired.  Even now in "retirement" he has to turn down work on a weekly basis from people who seek him out.  But he wouldn't have taken that first step if it wasn't for fear.

Are you scared enough?  Is life too comfortable?  Sedating?  Taking calculated risks is a great way to motivate yourself.  Everyone has their own risk-tolerance and preferences, but in general it's healthy to strike a balance between fear and comfort.  Too much fear and you are paralyzed.  Too much comfort and you are sleep-walking.

Take a risk every once in a while to keep you on your toes.  Or I can just go get the dogs and help you out...

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