One of the very first Life-Sparring rounds, just after I started the blog, dealt with the topic of fear and my attempts to overcome the paralysis it puts me in. You can find the original article, called “Trying to Break the Spell – Some Reflections on Fear,” here.
That I am revisiting the topic after such a short time is for two reasons: a recent personal crisis on my side, and reading Daniele Bolelli’s excellent book "Not Afraid: On Fear, Heartbreak, Raising a Baby Girl, and Cage Fighting".
I came across Bolelli for the first time listening to one of his guest appearances on Joe Rogan’s JRE Podcast (JRE 716). The show prompted me to subscribe to Bolelli’s “History on Fire Podcast”, which is fairly entertaining, if you like the gruesome chapters of world history and if you can handle a strong Italian accent.
Bolelli was back on JRE in early February (JRE 755) to promote his book and I bought it right away. Too bad I’m not friends with Joe Rogan or Tim Ferriss; a simple appearance on one of their podcasts would give Life-Sparring a nice boost. It definitely worked for Bolelli.
Daniele Bolelli (born in Italy and, despite his many years in California, equipped with the thickest Italian accent you can imagine) is a very likeable, extremely outspoken historian, university lecturer, author, amateur martial artist, single parent and podcaster. If you are interested in history, I definitely recommend “History on Fire”; it is possibly the best thing to listen to while waiting for a new episode of Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History”.
Even without knowing Bolelli’s background, I likely would have picked up "Not Afraid" at some point in time; it does match the sentiment of this blog all too well. Making the connection between his deeply engrained fears, his training in mixed martial arts, his professional challenges, dealing with the tragic loss of his wife and raising his infant daughter as a young widower, this intimate autobiography is essentially one big Life-Sparring exercise.
Of course, I cannot compare my clumsy attempts to learn Muay Thai in my thirties with Bolelli’s lifelong practice of martial arts, but I see a lot of parallels to myself in his outlook on life.
It is quotes like the passage above that truly made me identify with Bolelli. Just like the author, I always wanted to be a hero, wanted to make a positive difference, but all too often struggle with my own limitations. As you should know by now, this struggle is the main motivation to start this blog. It is what fuels articles like this one.
Bolelli finds great words to describe this daily struggle with himself:
As mentioned before, the book resonated so strongly with me not just because of the martial arts angle on life, but also because I read it at a time when I was dealing with a personal crisis myself. Sometimes it is the timing of reading a book that turns a good read into a profound life-changing experience.
While compared to the tragic cancer death of Bolelli’s wife my own problem seemed trivial, I still was just climbing back out of a pretty dark hole when reading "Not Afraid". Having just faced my own shadows and having looked deep into the yawning abyss of my inherent fears put me in the perfect mindset to read the book.
It took me painfully long, but after weeks of struggles I came to very similar conclusions as Daniele Bolelli in his book: The very essence of life is in many ways a battle with yourself. Giving up the fight would be giving up life itself. In words freely adapted from René Descartes: “I fight, therefore I am”. Never give up aspiring for a better version of yourself.
Fear is an inherent human condition, a useful reflex that protects us from potential danger. It made sense, from an evolutionary perspective, that a rustling bush scared us. There could have been a hungry saber-toothed tiger hiding behind it.
But like almost anything in this world, fear is highly toxic if overdosed. Fear tries to make you submit, tries to make you tap out of the fight against your own inadequacies. And this you can never let happen. Looking back on my life so far, my happiest moments were the small victories over my weaker self and the moments of my biggest despair were those moments when the shadows of my own self looked like invincible monsters.
Martial arts, especially fighting (and to a lesser extent, sparring) is an exercise in facing true fear, and as such, can be beneficial in battle-hardening for the real fights of your life. Those that usually come not in the form of physical altercations but as battles of will.
Face your shadows and unmask your fears as what they are. Be not afraid. Or, as Daniele Bolelli puts it: