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Gaining a Clear Perspective on Fear

Miguel Hernandez

Miguel served in the U.S. Army from 2007 - 2014. He is Clay Hunt Fellow with Cohort 4 and former Regional Logistics Manager with Team Rubicon based in Virginia. He is pursuing a Master's degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and also worked as a peer support specialist for the Wounded Warrior Project and a career coach fellow for The Mission Continues.

Miguel Hernandez, Cohort 4 of the Clay Hunt Fellows Program.

“You will get only as much as you put in.”

This was the opening statement on our first day of the Clay Hunt Fellowship Program (CHFP). Not too complicated, very clearly stated. We were asked to reflect and explore our past struggles and look back on wishes and dreams to help us understand what gives purpose to our lives. The first step was an assessment called StrengthsFinder that helps us define what we’re naturally good at. Then, we went through a program called YouSchool, which focuses on helping individuals discover themselves and their passions.

Cohort 4 of Clay Hunt Fellows.

Reflecting and working with the CHFP and YouSchool helped me understand how my sense of purpose developed during the time I spent living on my grandparent’s ranch in Duarte Province, Dominican Republic. Living with my grandparents changed me, and in a way, outshined my past, making it less relevant. Living in the countryside gave me a different perspective. Although the pace is much slower, I was forced to be present, alert, and able to experience each moment. Getting caught off guard could land you in a dangerous situation.

My grandfather provided me with practical advice about living in such an environment. For example, it was common to find the Giant Tarantula of Hispaniola around the house. The trick to dispatching them was to get them before they flip on their backs – preparing to jump and bite. They can be intimidating, but I can’t remember having too many issues. On one occasion, I walked about a mile to my friend’s house with the feeling that something was inside the front of my boot. Once I got there I took off my boot, sure enough, a giant freaking spider fell to the floor. Spooked with my boot still in my hand and my grandfather’s timely warning, I smashed it.

My grandfather.

As a Clay Hunt Fellow, I have come to realize the hazards of keeping skeletons in the closet. We know something is there and is bothering us but we do not take the time to deal with it, or at least acknowledge it. The issue is not realizing the danger we’re in, nor the damage it’s causing us. We go on limping through our lives with spiders in our boots, being too afraid to check on it, shake the boot, and tackle whatever falls out.

I was once told I was “too involved” when it came to my volunteer activities with Team Rubicon. What those individuals did not understand was the promise I made myself many years ago, during the same disaster TR was born from. At that time, I was part of a deployable team, capable of conducting search and rescue operations in Haiti, but we weren’t deployed. We were extremely frustrated, so I put myself in a position where I could put my skills to use through Team Rubicon because it was my calling. The problem was, even though I was doing these things as a volunteer, I felt angst about letting them define me. As I worked through the YouSchool program and with the assistance of my kick-ass mentors, I realized I needed to tackle this issue and release this huge, free-ranging spider in my closet.

Back in my childhood, snakes caused me the most trouble. We would be awakened in the middle of the night by one of our chickens making a distinctive squeal as a Dominican Constrictor boa feasted on it. My grandparents would get out of bed, go out to the coop startled and angry, and take care of it. My first experience with these snakes happened as I walked through our plantation. I remember looking down at my feet as a Blunt Headed Tree Snake slithered across the laces. The snake seemed unaware of my presence as I stood frozen solid, watching my short eight years of life flash before my eyes.

Round two with snakes was different; I was ready for it. As one fell from a tree and landed on my neck and shoulders, I was no longer frozen solid! I managed to flick the thing off my back. Unfortunately, right behind me was my little sister who jumped and avoided being bit, but she wasn’t too pleased with the experience.

My last snake encounter was traumatic. It happened as I rode my bike to pick up my little sister from school. I noticed it immediately on the opposite side of the road, heading across and ahead of my path. I went for it. As soon as I rode forward I was confident about my decision, but my satisfaction was short-lived. It came close, and I felt what seemed like the crack of a whip on my calf. This is my worst fear come to life. So, I pedaled faster, but no matter what she just kept hitting my leg repeatedly. With my adrenaline pumping, I jumped off the bike. As I ran, I noticed the snake was no longer attacking me. When I had the courage to look back, I was able grasp what had all been in my mind. Yes, the snake was what I felt hitting me, well, at least what was left of it, but it had gotten stuck on the back wheel of the bike and was only hitting me because I kept pedaling. Once I stopped, so did the snake, who had suffered a far worse trauma.

Sometimes life presents us with situations where we must react. In hindsight, everything seems clear, but in the heat of the moment fog clouds it all. This becomes an issue when we start second-guessing ourselves by thinking “what if I had done this or that?” Not only do we go on with this guilt about what we should have done, we also start making new decisions with this mindset, because we do not want to relive these experiences again. We move on, getting repeatedly bitten in our calves, because we are too afraid of doing something different and dealing with the unknown.

Stop pedaling to avoid a situation or run from the problem, and face the mangled snake in the spooks—the one thing slowing you down. These days, for me, this means sitting in a restaurant with my back towards the door, going to a crowded theater, and re-learning to enjoy fireworks on the fourth of July. Everyone has different fears to overcome. I am certain the experiences I’ll regret many years from now will not be experiences I had, but experiences I didn’t have. I want my list for the latter to be significantly shorter. I’m all in.