People everywhere, expose yourselves
When I was a hare-brained 25-year-old travelling around the world, I decided to climb Alaska’s most northerly mountain range, alone, with winter approaching and with almost no comparable experience.
I got into trouble thumpingly quickly. Two hours out from an Inuit village the polar wind came thundering up the valley like a great icy bowling ball, the wind-chill factor dropped to about minus 20 and my fingers burned just short of frostbite as I struggled to peg my whip-cracking tent into the snow.
By morning I wanted to abort, but I went on up into that white morass of mountains. It was painful, it was terrifying and it was unwise, but the experience was a perfect instance of the paradoxical payoffs of exposure.
For five days I protected my few cubic feet of fragile human warmth from a cold so extreme it snap-froze the constant drips streaming down from my sinuses. (One morning, to get my muesli into my mouth, I had to keep breaking foot-long stalactites off my nose.)
The point is that succeeding in that necessity – surviving the exposure to that stunning, lethally freezing landscape – left me with a newly energised sense of life and personal strength.
The payoffs of exposure, however, don’t come only – and perhaps not even mainly – from its physical form. Exposure can be had just about anywhere, anyhow.
You can get it revealing something intimate. You can get it doing something that terrifies you. You can feel it coming on in a relationship. Matter of fact, I’ve got some right now.
I really have. A whole lot. I’ve just had a memoir published – called Exposure, no surprise – which describes how that world odyssey I went on, which was supposed to be (and in many ways was) a wonderful journey of adventure and risk, was also an escape from an unpalatable psychological diagnosis.
I had obsessive compulsive disorder. Though I could stake my life on a Eureka Bike’n’Hike tent in the Arctic, fear had bloomed in other parts of my mind and experience since my late teens.
I’d become terrified of germs; of friends hurting themselves; of going blind; of people dying or falling ill due to my carelessness; and, most traumatically, of fathering a child I would never know about who would have a tragic existence.
The real connection with exposure here is that the therapy of choice for most anxiety-based and phobic disorders is something called ‘exposure therapy’. In this, people expose themselves to what they fear in increasing degrees of intensity for long enough that their fear gradually diminishes. The mind ‘habituates’.
It’s remarkable to think that recovering sufferers of anxiety disorders can expand their experience of life via the same psychological journey rockclimbers and skydivers take. In each case, it’s the exposure to fear, risk and the perception of danger that provides the route to the positive experience and potential growth.
The principle applies to us all. The authors of a massive German study on risk-taking, while noting there was no clear causal link between the willingness to take risks and happiness, nevertheless found ‘a strong positive association’ between the two.
If you think about it, any significant choice – of a partner, a career, a house – contains the risk that if you choose badly you may create a big problem for yourself, miss out on better alternatives, or both. Yet there’s no way to have what you want without running those risks.
Of course, exposure refers to more than risk and fear. It refers also to the laying bare of things. I’m not talking about skinny-dipping, as fine as that can be. I’m thinking more about taking off the body armour or breaking some of those double-glazed societal expectations to feel life on one’s skin again.
One of literature’s best-known exposure-avoiders, J. Alfred Prufrock, refused to ‘dare disturb the universe’ by declaring his love to a woman, and was left to ‘grow old … grow old … / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.’
To offer love to another person, especially for life, is of course one of the deepest forms of exposure.
On a balmy yet crazy evening in Zimbabwe, two-thirds of the way round the world, I finally glimpsed that the global adventure of my mid-20s had been a means of escape from not just my OCD but from the woman I still loved.
Daring death in a kayak didn’t scare me half as much as the risk I belatedly faced of offering my life to her.
In life, the biggest risk can be not to take the risk. And avoiding exposure can be the most dangerous exposure of all.
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