He Who Hesitates is (Sometimes) Lost

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/02/Newtons_cradle_animation_smooth.gif

Fear and hesitation go hand in hand. They hold you back, creating a slow motion to your progress (see above) and sometimes no progress at all. The trick is to separate the two, to recognize that you needn’t wait until you are free of fear in order to act. Indeed, if that were the case, most of the people whom we consider brave would still be waiting for the moment of bold action that earned them the appellation “hero.”

Years ago I heard a panel discussion on the subject of Wagner’s opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung that actually touched on the issue of courage and decisive action. The experts focused on the character Siegfried, who is described as someone who has never known an instant of fear in his life. Should we therefore consider Siegfried’s fearless behavior to be indicative of heroism and bravery? The panel in question concluded it did not. After all, they reasoned, how can one be a hero without fear to overcome? Only a fool would rush to action without being aware of the attendant dangers. But a brave and courageous man would know the perils facing him and choose to act in any case.

Most of us won’t face dragons or fire, of course, but we still will all have numerous chances to act decisively or to hold back. Here is a trivial, but instructive example from my own life. In college, I was fulfilling a PE requirement by taking fencing. Now, I wasn’t a very good fencer, despite being a reasonably good athlete. And, my heavy academic course load didn’t permit me the luxury of spending time outside of class to practice fencing. Thus, in the first seven matches I had against my classmates, I won only three, a pretty mediocre showing.

Nonetheless, I was competitive enough to want to win more often, so I reasoned that there just might be a way that wouldn’t take time away from my other studies. I realized that I was a relatively tentative fencer, and so I decided to become more aggressive. I set myself the task of getting in the first “touch” as soon as each new match began. The strategy worked. Of the next 17 matches, I won 14. I was almost always able to get a 1 to 0 lead within a few seconds of the start of the competition by catching my adversaries off-guard. Yet, despite my new found success, I was really no better at fencing than I’d been when my record was three wins and four losses. I was simply less hesitant, more aggressive.

I once had a biology professor named Hudson who conducted the “Quiz” portion of his classes in a way to encourage behavior similar to my fencing experience. You were graded on the number of questions you answered correctly and lost points if you answered the interrogatories wrong. Hudson asked the questions aloud and it was a race to get your hand up first and have him call on you to answer. Naturally, you had to make a quick decision as to whether you had the right answer. Very fast indeed. Those who hesitated were, as the saying goes, “lost.”

But how does this all apply to daily life, the life outside of the university. You might say that “normal” life is less competitive than my examples suggest, but is it? To answer that question, ask yourself how often you hesitate to do things, take chances, give public voice to concerns that might engender disapproval, avoid tasks that are difficult or challenging? Do you ask out the beautiful woman, or do you wait until you feel “ready,” only to watch someone else beat your time in getting her attention? Do you, at least sometimes, see a crisis as an opportunity? Or do you hold back, put things off, wait and hope that another or better time for action will come? Sometimes it will, but sometimes it won’t.

If your “default” strategy, your habitual tendency, is to wait, you have a similar problem to those whose standard operating procedure is to act impulsively, without thinking. It may be the case that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” but it is also true that you are an equal fool if you forever hold back, hesitate, and watch the moment pass or see someone else “seize the day (carpe diem).”

What I am talking about is fear and the uncertainty that fuels it. When we are fearful and decide not to take action, most of us feel an immediate sense of relief. That relief reinforces our hesitation, while simultaneously depriving us of the opportunity to succeed in the endeavor. Soon enough the relief will pass, but not the self-doubt and lack of personal esteem and confidence that might have been won by an effective action.

The danger in allowing too many chances to pass by is a life of “quiet desperation,” a life on the sidelines, watching others play the game, but not playing it ourselves. And, at the end of life, regret for the opportunities passed and the chances not taken is more likely to be troubling than the failed efforts made. Beware the heartache of the words “what if?” True, acting boldly often fails; but, it also sometimes succeeds.

No wonder, then, that musicians spend relatively little time passively listening to music. They are too busy making it.

Make music of your life, then. Let the trumpet announce (or remind) the world of your presence. Sing your song. And if you cannot, find a therapist who will give you the tools to beat back your fear and help encourage you.

The above image is an Animation of Newton’s Cradle created on August 8, 2006 by Demon Deluxe and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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