Posted in Today's File

On Physics and Fear

Our next door neighbor is learning to play guitar. I know this because his open screen door wasn’t far from our open bedroom window at nine o’clock last night. As he worked his way through the opening chords of “Smoke on the Water” (over and over and over and over and over) I consoled myself with the fact that it couldn’t go on indefinitely, because he IS still learning. Meaning he probably doesn’t have the finger calluses yet, and he’d have to quit after a bit.

I can sympathize, because my “motorcycle muscles” are also feeling the effects of unaccustomed use. Well, let me be more accurate. My learning-the-motorcycle-muscles are feeling it. I recognize that on some level I was still trying to “muscle” the bike into staying upright, even though the bike can do just fine on its own, thank you very much. I may behave at some moments as if I’m holding up the bike with my arms, but of course that’s not what’s happening.

The bike will stay upright pretty much on its own when it’s in motion—basic physics takes care of that. And the faster you’re going, the easier that is. (It’s counter-intuitive, I know—but if you think about balancing a bicycle at next-to-nothing speed, you know how much harder that is than staying balanced when you’re pedaling down the street. Same principle.) Given that I haven’t yet graduated out of first gear on the motorcycle, I’m learning to control the bike at its most difficult speed.

My own “newbie” lack-of-confidence was my worst enemy before yesterday. I’ve been rather too aware that there’s a (literal) tipping-point, and if the bike’s center of gravity crosses it, I don’t have the muscle to hold it up. Yet I also know the rest of the physics involved, and the fact that the bike is designed to stay upright when you ride it! Truly, all I need to do is trust the bike (trust the physics) and not indulge in any herky-jerky reactions to my own fears. And therein lies the challenge. Some moments I’d been letting my fear drive—and Fear is not a skilled driver.

Trust is the antithesis of Fear. By the end of yesterday evening’s session I wasn’t tensing for every corner anymore, and that’s huge improvement. I was not just “managing to turn” the bike—I was turning it more tightly, and pretty precisely on the path I set for myself. More improvement.

Strange as it might seem, I actually think that those improvements happened because one of my fears got realized, early in the riding session. (Bless his heart, Jon would go to the grave without telling this to anyone… But I find it useful to stay REAL here, so I’ll tell on myself.)

I dropped the bike. There, I’ve said it—and there, I did it. The possibility that had me most petrified actually happened.

I dropped the bike, and it wasn’t disastrous. I’m not suggesting that I didn’t care. But the world kept turning, the sun kept setting, and there were no remonstrances from my kind husband. The bike gained some scratches (for the record, she’d been dropped before we got her) but Jon focused only on me (“Forget the bike, are YOU okay?!” Yes, by the way)—and instead of being reluctant to have me get back on her, he was relieved that I wanted to.

Here’s what I know: if I hadn’t gotten back on her last night, my mind would be stuck in that moment, the moment when I reacted in fear and then overcorrected and… well gosh, I don’t know precisely what I did next, but I sure know the result. And that’s where my mind would be stuck, until I got on the bike again, still simmering in that moment of fear. And I can tell you right now, I wouldn’t ride well—even just for circles around the parking lot—with my mind in that place of fear.

biker wave if you've never owned one you'll never understand
the universal “biker wave”… Doesn’t matter what you ride—it’s the fact that you DO.

Instead, I waited a few minutes for the adrenaline rush to recede, sat on her and said a prayer aloud, and then I rode my little circles until my clutch-hand was weary—trusting the bike and staying upright and maneuvering around the curbed trees at the end of the lot. The more my confidence increases, the less of a foothold that fear has… And the better I ride.

I think fear is all about our imaginations running wild. Dropping the bike seemed like an impossibly awful thing to do… Until it actually happened. It’s not unlike some of the other “impossibly awful” things that have happened in my life—they turned out to be not impossible, and not quite as earth-shattering as my imagined versions of them.

Losing a career-job, losing a spouse to suicide, even losing custody of my kids—as heart-rending as all of those events were, none of them stopped the world from turning, and none of them stopped Joy from showing up in my life afterward.  Compared to those things, fear of dropping the bike seems laughable.

I won’t go so far as to say I “needed” to drop the bike to get over that fear, but I will say that I think that’s what was accomplished by it. And putting that fear behind me is what was needed in order to get past the point where the fear was doing the driving. Now that it has happened, I’m not so afraid of it—and the lack of fraidy-ness is just what I needed. However ironic it seems, now that I have dropped the bike, I don’t think it will happen again.

I am pretty stubborn, and I am going to ride well. When a chatting neighbor told me this morning that he’s enjoying my posts, and that “that’s a serious bike” to start riding on, I laughed at myself and answered that I don’t tend to do anything half-assed. (That’s not always a good thing in my life, but for better and worse, it’s true of me.) Today I’m looking forward to my next parking-lot session without the nerves. And someday, I’m going to ride with skills like these:

The “big book” of Alcoholics Anonymous speaks of fear as “an evil and corroding thread; the fabric of our existence was shot through with it.” That’s a line I don’t even have to look up to quote—and that’s how I know that fears have played too heavy a role in my life. But that line is closely followed by one of my favorite passages in the book, a passage with Solution:

We trust infinite God rather than our finite selves… Just to the extent that we do as we think He would have us, and humbly rely on Him, does he enable us to match calamity with serenity.

imageMatch calamity with serenity. That phrase is triple-underlined in my book, and there have been passages of time when that passage of the book was my mantra. If I’m only feeling the calamity, I’m not trusting God enough—but there’s a promise of serenity if I just stop trying to muscle my way through life on my own power. I don’t have the muscle to hold up the bike, let alone my life when it throws me curves.

One of my favorite biker T-shirts says: “When life throws you curves… Lean into them!” That’s Physics and Trust at work.


I am... a writer, an explorer, a coffee-drinker, a recovering addict, a barefoot linguist, a book-dragon ("bookworm" doesn't cover it), a raconteur, a sailboat skipper, a research diver, a tattooed scholar, a pirate, a poet, a spiritual adventurer, a photographer, a few kinds-of-crazy, a joyful wife, a mom... a list-maker! :)

9 thoughts on “On Physics and Fear

  1. Advice I once read about learing to ride was to remember the line “The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh”. Helped me to learn to trust the bike “all those years ago”…


  2. Here’s my ‘dropped the bike’ story … I had my bike for a few days (never ridden one before) and I pulled in to a friends driveway, slowed, stopped, and forgot to put my feet on the ground! :D

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have to agree that that’s a serious bike to learn on. But it also has the advantages of all the good stuff that a small learner ‘built to a price’ bike hasn’t got.
    The piece of advice for learning to ride … is to ride. Just getting out there and doing the miles builds up confidence and ride craft.



    1. I am TAKING your advice: ride ride ride (even though it’s just been in parking lots up until this week)… Tuesday I have a morning off to take the written test for my permit, so I can get out on some streets! Definitely feeling the advantages you mentioned, especially the brakes! :)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ha, another thing in common and probably most of us who ride have dropped our bike at some point. I sure did drop the 1100 Yamaha years and years ago and of course I couldn’t lift it back up by myself either.
    You are absolutely right and slower speed require much more balancing maneuvers, making it more difficult.
    I would say one thing about fear and that is that it is not a good companion. I call it a healthy respect for the road as you don’t have that added protection around you and you constantly have to watch your surroundings and be prepared for the mistakes of others, including not getting enough respect. Potholes and a change in pavement is also not as much forgiving as if on four wheel. Never lose that respect, but don’t drive with fear. Mistakes are made because of fear and it’s not a good combination. You will graduate to other gears and perhaps starting on a smaller bike will give you the confidence to get comfortable with the concept of riding. Fingers crossed and good luck, sending you the riders wave from my little corner of the world. Welcome…


  5. I’m told that learning HOW to put the bike down can be life-saving. Sometimes you get a little pain to avoid bigger disaster. That’s probably a whole ‘nother post though.


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