I love the old sea maps from the 17th century. Bang in the middle of the uncharted waters is a huge warning sign: ‘here there be dragons’ and next to it a terrifying beast of the sea scrawled in ink to depict the double-headed dangers of the unknown.
I love it, because it shows so brilliantly how we have always automatically filled the dark void of the unknown with imagined and terrifying double-headed dangers.
Steering well clear of them we tend to stick to what we know, keeping within the boundaries of our comfort zone and only in moments of recklessness, despair or acts of courage do we dare set sail into those dangerous unchartered waters.
As we each stand on the threshold, not knowing what lies ahead, we may be filled with excitement and hope at first, but as we prepare to take that first step those hopes melt away and suddenly, bam, we’re each faced with our own greatest fears.
It doesn’t matter how many times I do it, how often I discover to my delight that, where I feared the worst, wonderful things have emerged from the shadows, that first step over the threshold still has the power to put a damp flannel of fear over my heart as I look out into the darkness.
I fill the unknown with fears of failure, of being trapped, of looking like a fool. Fears of mediocrity, disappointment and my biggest fear of all, boredom.
The optimist in me will whisper hopes of dreams fulfilled, wonderful outcomes, but those hopes and dreams are never strong enough to keep at bay the cold shiver of potential disappointment that sits heavy on my shoulders.
Take my camper van adventure. The whole idea is that I explore parts of the UK previously unknown to me and yet, every time I leave a place and head off to a new part of the country, I have to force myself to do it.
When it was time to leave Cornwall and head for the Lake District I didn’t want to do it. I’d been to the Lake District before and I’d loved it and had dreamt of returning there on my 6 month camper van adventure, but suddenly now, faced with this new leg of my journey and leaving the safety, comfort and love of Cornwall, my heart sank.
Ahead of me lay a vague memory of a snow capped mountain that I’d hiked up and a delicious sense of contentment, but that was it. A lot had changed since then. All around that one happy memory lay a dark unknown that I filled with my usual fear of disappointment. What if I didn’t like it? What if I felt bored? What if it rained the whole time? Before I’d even got there I was re-routing the whole trip to get me out of there and scurrying back to Cornwall as soon as possible.
The Shitty Committee, who loves the comfortable warmth of the safe ‘known’ whispered in my ear that I could always stay in Cornwall for the duration of the summer.
This always happens too. While I fill the unknown up with fears and worst case scenarios, there is always a warm, seductive pull back towards that soft, comfortable bed of the ‘known’.
But no matter how real that dangerous unknown feels and how alluring my comfort zone promises itself to be, I know it’s all in my head. You can’t possibly know what lies in those unchartered waters until you’ve gone to explore them for yourself. And so, with a weary sigh I marched on into that thick, black, daunting unknown…
Three weeks later and I’m sitting in a field on the banks of Lake Windermere, on a balmy evening as the sun goes down, deeply grateful that once again I shoved that fear to one side and took the plunge. Because out of that unknown has emerged a whole new source of happiness that I might never have rediscovered if I hadn’t stepped out of my comfort zone.
Where my soul found it’s happiness by the sea, my body has found it’s happiness here – hiking up the mountains and kayaking on the Lakes. I have literally experienced my body ripple into life. Within days weight dropped off, muscles tightened and I found myself hungry to see how far, how fast, how high I could go. All those years I thought I was tired, I now realise my body was bored, longing for more movement, activity and physical challenge.
If I’d stayed in Cornwall I would have loved it I’m sure, but I would never have rekindled this connection with my body. Would never have stumbled upon this natural source of happiness that brings my body to life.
And nevertheless, as I get ready to leave the Lake District for a while and move on to Northumberland and its rugged coastline, I have that same old feeling of dread tickling in the background – ‘what if it’s rubbish, what if I’m bored, what if it rains, what if there’s nothing to do?’. But with a nod to the fear and a roll of the eyes at my belligerent Shitty Committee, I take a deep breathe, fire Beryl up and we’re off. Into the unknown yet again, where there be dragons.