Feeling the Fear in Florence

Fear is a limiting human emotion, which limits what we feel able to do and boxes us in within what is known and comfortable. Often the problem is fear of feeling fear, fear of failure, fear of change, fear of what others might think, or fear of strong emotions, such as anger or sadness. Often the unconscious response is to suppress and deny our fear and the uncomfortable feelings we fear, but what we don’t consciously see and face has the power to control us. This leaves us stuck in well worn habits which are familiar and comfortable, like a well worn in pair of shoes, regardless of how limiting and dysfunctional these habits are or how much damage they do to our lives and the lives of others.

So I do try to take opportunities to familiarise myself with feelings of fear, so that fear loses its power over me.

I had ample opportunity to feel fear this week in Florence: fear of heights. I have been afflicted by this fear since I was a child. There is an often referred to family story about me, as a young child, climbing the Glenfinnon monument in Scotland, freezing in floods of tears at the top and having to be carried down. The bizarre twist being that once I was safely down all that I wanted to do was to climb it again!

So our combined ticket into the Duomo in Florence included climbing up to the extraordinary frescoed dome and climbing the 414 steps up to the top of the adjoining bell tower.

At the dome, I successfully climbed the enclosed stone spiral staircases up to the first gallery. Then on emerging from a womb like stone corridor onto the first narrow overhanging balcony around the base of the dome I was paralysed with fear, immediately stepping back into an alcove in the corridor. Mark, my husband loves heights and spent some time trying to cajole me onto the gallery, before we agreed he would go on and come back for me and off he went.

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After 10 minutes or so it dawned on me that all the people going past were going in one direction – onto the gallery – and not coming back – and the horror of the situation dawned on me – it was a one way system and there we were supposed to take another way down!

So by now I was panicking – and although the logical way forward was to retrace my steps – the sense of shame and failure at trying to go back down the narrow spiral staircases against the flow of all the other people and of leaving by the entrance was too much to comprehend – I can work with shame and failure on my next holiday!

So after an Italian couple passed me, I followed them out on to the gallery. Feeling terrified, heart beating fast, sweating, I followed them around the narrow gallery. The main problem, was that, quite reasonably they wanted to stop several times to admire the frescoes and I had to stop behind them each time – squeezing past them was not really possible and invoked storylines of the balcony breaking and pitching me into the chasm below. A recurring storyline was about the recent earthquakes in Italy and that if we experienced one now the dome might collapse. Despite a rational voice telling me that the dome had stood for hundreds of years despite many earthquakes, my irrational imagination had me plummeting through the space below me.

My response was a self compassion break and just the gesture of hand on heart calmed me sufficiently to continue to follow the Italian couple. Goodness knows what they thought – a terrified looking woman, with hand on heart, following them around the gallery each time they moved. At this point I was past caring.

When we got to the other side of the gallery we were again in a womb like corridor and I was anticipating the wonder of a downward leading staircase. Instead I was met by an upward leading staircase and I thought – what fresh hell is this? Which is ironic as one of the main themes in the frescoes was man’s descent into hell. At this point I tried to phone Mark to find out what was in store, but no answer. I was on my own.

So I took a few Mindful breaths, focussed on my feet and began to climb. It wasn’t long before I came to another corridor, here was a decision – continue up to the exposed platform outside of the top of the dome – or to my relief an option to go down – a no brainer – I had done enough facing my fear for one day!

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So I followed the corridor in the direction down, to be met by a guide pleasantly directing me onto a second even higher narrow cantilever gallery. Not again! However, in anticipation of steps down, I had taken off my glasses, which are varifocals and so I can’t see steps well with them on. So, with my head down I headed along the second gallery, with not a glance to either side, and with no one blocking my way, I soon reached the next corridor and the stairs down, which I navigated with wobbly knees. Mark caught me up on the way down and we emerged together into the sunlit piazza at the bottom. The relief at being on solid ground was enormous and I was shaking like a leaf – time for some strong sweet coffee!

I had been panicky and terrified, nevertheless I pondered this fear of heights and the prospect of the bell tower, which we had booked for the following day. The next day, I extracted a vow from Mark that he wouldn’t desert me half way up and climbed the full height of the tower: feeling the fear and doing it anyway. It was easier than the dome. The worst bit was the narrow overhanging gallery at the top, which I ventured onto briefly for a photo – proof that I had made it.

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I was determined – took it step by step – and I was so glad I did! The view from the top was stunning in the winter sunshine – open, spacious and beautiful. I was glad to have faced the fear and this was the outcome.

Florence is, I think, the most beautiful city I have visited – it’s scale, architecture, frescoed walls and friendly residents. However, I was most moved by an exhibition by Chinese artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei, who was famously arrested and held by the Chinese authorities, isolated and beaten.

He had spoken out against corruption by Chinese officials, which had led to poor building standards in schools, which collapsed in an earthquake killing hundreds of children. He continues to speak out for the freedom of the Chinese population, despite the ever- present fear of reprisal against him or his family, he has a wife and child. In a video installation, a European journalist asked him whether he was scared to speak out in this way. He replied that he was, but that if he didn’t speak out it would feel like he was no longer a living human being. I was moved and inspired by this amazing example of fearlessness and the message of hope it communicates to his fellow citizens.

I think it is important for all of us to reflect how fear is limiting our potential to live a value based life that benefits all around us. If we can all do this, just a bit, the benefit will be enormous. I was struck by these Ai Waiwai quotes about China and felt a shiver of recognition about how I am beginning to feel in my own country.

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This year of 2016 is a time where doing what we can to make things better – despite our fears – is needed more than ever.

-Heather Regan Addis

If you want help and support in facing your fears, I have found the practice of mindfulness invaluable. Take a look at the free resource page of our website to explore mindfulness more.

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