Bravery 101: Life Lessons From an Elk, a Bear and Two Rabid Attack Chipmunks

Bravery 101: Life Lessons From an Elk, a Bear and Two Rabid Attack Chipmunks

A few summers ago, I set out on a solo road trip with the goal of tent camping in all the national parks in America. At my going-away party, my friend Allie said to me, “Aren’t you scared?”

To be honest, the idea that what I was doing might be scary hadn’t even crossed my mind. I’ve always been unconventional, so I’m used to my friends’ faces showing that they don’t think my idea sounds fun, but scary? Nah.

Looking back, I’ve come to realize that my attitude is the reason the summer was so amazing, even though I only made it as far as Colorado before getting the good kind of “stuck.” It was the type of trip you write home about, rife with surprise friendships and inexplicable magic.

Which brings me to Bravery Lesson #1.

Expect things to work out.
Because, why not?

The Buddhists figured it out long before neuroscience was a thing, but now we have proof that we create our realities. Pay attention, and you’ll see blaring neon examples of this all around you. One of my exes was a stress monkey – hence the “ex” part – and he believed danger was lurking around every corner. [Seriously. He self-quarantined before lockdown started, for good measure]. As a result, his life is a barrage of unhelpful customer service reps, unexpected bills and missing luggage.

My best friend Brent, on the other hand, approaches each new day like the Fool in the Tarot. The Fool represents complete faith that life is good and worthy of trust. Judgy people call the Fool naive, but Brent ignores them and lives a full, merry life. He’s always willing to give it a shot, no matter what’s on the agenda, and he assumes he’ll arrive at the best possible outcome.

Nine times out of 10, he does.

I land somewhere in the middle – a daredevil about most things and a chicken shit about my career. Which is why this article is as much for me as it is for you – to remind me to apply this fearlessness to my writing. [This is what writers do instead of therapy].

Here are a few things I’ve found to be true about obsessing over what could go wrong.

  1. What you are afraid of happening is never as bad as what actually happens. Exposure therapy operates on this premise. In exposure therapy, subjects face their fears head-on, via direct contact, or when that’s not possible, through means like virtual reality. [Picture virtual spiders crawling on you if you’re an arachnophobe.] In nearly every case, test subjects report that the reality is not as bad as their perception of what might happen. Through repeated exposure over time, the fear’s power over them diminishes. You’ve probably experienced this at some point when you’ve done something you’ve been dreading – like going to the dentist – only to say afterward, “that wasn’t so bad.”
  2. Worrying about the worst-case scenario is an energy drain. Whereas, envisioning positive outcomes creates excitement that inspires more action and greater risk-taking.

If we’re going to push ourselves to do scary yet worthwhile things, excitement is the driving force necessary to get us into the arena.

Trust yourself

Even more important than Bravery Lesson #1 is this: Even when things don’t turn up all unicorns and rainbows, you must trust that you are resourceful enough to survive. You’ve overcome adversity 1,000 times before and you’re still standing, so that’s proof you can take on anything.

Because of all the times I should have been eaten by wolves and wasn’t, I figure I’ve got this lesson in the bag.

Like the time I got fired for rabble-rousing and kicked out of my summer housing – and found a job and room to rent within 24 hours.

Or the time I booked a plane ticket with the wrong name on it, but the airport I was flying out of only used robots, so no one noticed.

Or the time I lost my ID and all my money on my fourth day in Italy and reported it to the cops while wearing assless pants – and it became this story [link to I Think My Ass is Bleeding once it’s published].

It seems that like cockroaches and rats, I’m a survivor. And since you’re alive and reading this, you are too.

So bring on the adventure. We’ve clearly got this.

All we need to do now is  . . .

Act like being here is the most natural thing in the world

Just like the elk in the photo above. Let’s call him Gary.

Gary had wandered into Estes Park from Rocky Mountain National and was dining on the front lawn of a very popular hotel. What was most noteworthy about him (besides being fucking majestic) was that he could not have cared less about the crowds of tourists literally everywhere. It was like Disneyland during Spring Break.

One would think wild animals might shy away from this kind of thing. But not Gary. Gary just placidly ate grass while traffic backed up and crowds gathered and throngs of lookie-loos (myself included) invaded his personal space to get the perfect photo.

Now granted he was a male elk with mighty antlers, so Gary could claim his place at the metaphorical table with ease. But if you’ll indulge the metaphor, the message is this:

When you put big ideas (or big horns) out there and then stand around like it’s just so damn obvious that you and your ideas belong there, crowds will form. People will gape at you in awe because you are doing the thing. They will want photos to prove they met you in person. [Because if there’s no picture, it didn’t happen.] And they won’t mess with you because they will get this vague, unspoken sense that you are a force to be reckoned with. 

So ignore the voice inside that says you don’t belong here [Not today, Satan is my favorite mantra for this]. Because when you “act as if” you are someone worth paying attention to, guess what?

People will pay attention.

Assume positive intent (Or, be loving, instead of all the other things you could be)

The reaction I got to this video was intense. My father – who had always given me props on adulting prior to this moment – texted, “I thought you were smarter than this.”

My friend Allie said: “This is literally what I meant at your going away party.”

But by far the most perplexing response was, “that’s terrifying; what did you have with you to kill it?”

Um . . . what?

Why, for the love of all things sacred and beautiful, is this the first thought your brain formed?

Look, I know crossing paths with a starving animal in the middle of nowhere where few hikers ever tread has a high danger quotient. Ditto a momma bear protecting her cubs. My situation was neither of those scenarios, however. And I did have bear mace and a switchblade. And I had even put them in my backpack for a change.

But my thinking could not have been further from how quickly I could get to my weapons. Instead, I was absolutely bursting with awe. How many people ever get to see a bear in the wild this close up? How amazing that the bear’s sole focus was eating ants out of a log, and not hiding from view or running away from the hikers on the path! His energy clearly communicated that we could all share the space without anyone having to wet themselves or knock over five-year-olds in an attempt to outrun them.

Oh, and did I mention there was a five-year-old nearby? Much easier to catch and eat than a 41-year-old woman, Dad.

So how does this relate to showing up in your own life?

Well, I would invite you to come from a place of love. If your big dream is born of a genuine desire to help other people, then as a general rule, the universe will bring you wonders to marvel at and opportunities to explore, rather than starving beasts that want to devour you.

If your paintings are intended to spark joy during a dark time in human history, if your writing reminds someone that she is not alone, if your coaching leads people out of suffering, how can you not succeed? Even on the days when you don’t believe in yourself, you have to believe in a purpose that comes from a place of love. Assume positive intent and believe that people will rally behind any and all attempts to infuse more good into the world.

Armed with this belief, you never have to feel like the dreaded “used car salesman.” You can just be your enthusiastic, passionate self, free of self-doubt.

So never shrink from sharing your project with people because you don’t want to “annoy” them. When you’re adding beauty and value to the world, that’s worth talking about.

~

Despite run-ins with elk, bears, bighorn sheep, king snakes, skunks and even the mysterious creature I saw in the woods dragging away a dead chicken 😱, by far the scariest encounter was the one I had with the rabid attack chipmunks.

I was visiting the Shambala Mountain Center for the day and was in a post-meditation haze when I took a seat on a bench to eat some lunch. The sun was shining and the birds were chirping . . . and there were a startling number of chipmunks. And they were definitely alpha dogs – bold AF. They’d run right up to people and stop just shy of jumping on their shoes.

Ah, they’re used to getting fed, I thought, and turned my attention back to my veggie chili.

But then I became aware of being watched. With my bowl in my lap, I looked up and saw two chipmunks staring at me from about four feet away. And when I say staring, what I mean is, they were looking at me as if they were velociraptors and I was a dinosaur biscuit.

They looked at me. Then at each other. Then back at me.

I stared back.

Then they charged.

In 1.4 seconds they covered the distance between us, and while one created a diversion, the other leapt onto the bench then dove straight INTO MY BOWL!!!

No joke.

It was all I could do not to scream and throw a cascade of chili and a chili-coated chipmunk into the air. And so, in my panicked state, I settled on forcibly shouting NO! NOOOOO! while shaking my finger in their faces, like a demented old lady trying to train her naughty cats not to sharpen their claws on the couch. And much like the old lady’s cats, the chipmunks gave zero fucks.

So what did I learn from this most unprecedented of ambushes?

The most potent attacks on your bravery will come from unexpected places

When you do something brave, expect some shade. Having the balls to change the status quo implies to everyone else – who accepts things the way they are – that they are doing it wrong.

But it’s especially hard when the “dream-zappers” come in the form of your SO, the friend with whom you’re always brainstorming new business ideas, or your mom. These people will come at you with the most insidious advice, urging you to “be realistic” (ie. don’t try) and asking “if you’re 100% positive” (impossible, unless you’re psychic). All of these words will be cloaked in bravery-dampening, concerned-sounding sentiments like, “I just want what’s best for you” or “I’d hate to see this not work out” or “I don’t want you to get your hopes up.”

So don’t overthink it. Just go.

Overthinking will stop you dead in your tracks. While you’re spending more time “preparing,” your doubts – and the doubts of your dream zappers – are spreading like a toxic root system, gluing you in place. As Ash Ambirge says in her book The Middle Finger Project, “while you’re getting ready, someone else just got two years of experience.”

Furthermore, do you think the chipmunks gave even 1/10th of a second’s thought to what was realistic when they took on a horrible red-headed giant, 72,000x their size in a fierce battle for chili? No! They just did the brave thing. They took the literal leap, and guess what the final score was at the end?

Jennie – 0, Rabid Attack Chipmunks – 1

The little guy for the win.

So whether your goal is more money, more clients or more chili, the path of bravery is this:

  • Expect the best, while trusting you can handle the worst
  • Act like you deserve to be there, because you do if you’re driven by love
  • Leap

And always remember, dream zappers are afraid of being left behind. They’re afraid that if an actual mortal like you can dream big and do the thing, then living their lives with anything less than balls-to-the-wall bravery is complacency.

And they’re right, but you simply have no time to judge or pity them because you, my friend, have important work to do.

P.S. For more about overcoming fear, listen to my conversation with Dai Manuel about which is scarier – a TED Talk or a stand-up comedy set.

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