Dare to Eat a Peach | April 5, 2013

Dare to Eat a Peach

I had a friend in high school who was afraid of the dark. Really afraid of the dark. Paralyzingly afraid of the dark. No one is sure where this fear came from, but he did not know about it until he came to Putney School because in New York City he was never exposed to true darkness, the kind of darkness where you can put your hand in front of your face and still not see it. You only know about this kind of all‐encompassing, extreme darkness if you have camped out on a starless and moonless night far away from city lights, town lights, and street lights.

The school that my friend and I attended was a progressive boarding school in Putney, Vermont. At this school, the training the students receive in the outdoors and in the arts is weighted as much as the academic training. Evenings are spent on activities like choral singing, blacksmithing, orchestra, welding, and poetry writing. Putney School offered us an experiential education, and the teachers gave us a lot of independence and responsibility. Instead of final exams, we had projects often having to do with the arts and the outdoors.

The academic calendar was built around the seasons, not final exams, and each change of season the entire school—in groups of 8‐15 students‐‐ was sent into the wild. The fall and spring trips were called "Long Fall" and "Long Spring," and it was in this context that my friend Peter Heller found out he was deathly afraid of the dark.

At Putney School, for a student to be afraid of the dark would be comparable to a student at MBS being afraid to hold an iPad. You cannot engage in the work at hand with this kind of fear.

Because he could not fully embrace the program unless he conquered it, he decided he needed to face his fear full on.

So my friend petitioned the school administration to allow him to take his Long Fall trip solo. Looking back on it now, I don't know how the head of school agreed to send this New York City boy into the woods by himself, but they thought it would be good for him, so the school administration gave Peter Heller permission to camp by himself for four days.

Although no one really knows what went on in those hills over that four‐day period, when Peter Heller returned, he had conquered his fear of the dark.

He had also figured out what to do when he ran out of food. He ate grubs. And to this day, we call him "Grubs."

From Putney School he went onto Dartmouth College where he made a name for himself in whitewater kayaking. After college he traveled the world as an expedition kayaker. He became a well‐known adventure writer and went on to become a contributor to NPR, Outside Magazine, and National Geographic Adventure.

After writing three popular non‐fiction adventure books, this year Grubs published his first book of fiction Dog Stars, which remained on the New York Times Best Seller list this winter.

So imagine what would have happened if Grubs had not faced his fear and taken the risk of four days in the woods alone? He would not have become an adventure writer.

Let's be clear about what I mean by risk‐taking. By taking a risk, I do not mean attempting to swallow five bottles of Tabasco sauce on a dare, which a student at my old school did. From his bed in the emergency room, he admitted his stupidity. That is not a risk. There is no risk involved. There's no percentage of something good happening from those actions, so it's not a risk, it's what we call...stupid.

And by facing your fears I do not mean trying to overcome your fear of a rattlesnake or of jumping into piranha‐filled waters. Those are good fears to have because they may save you.

I am talking about fears and anxieties that prevent us from being who we really are or from doing things that we want to do, things that will help us grow and live more fully. Maybe none of you have had a paralyzing fear to the extreme that Grubs did, but all of us at one time or another are confronted by anxieties or fears that limit us, that make us tentative and full of uncertainty and self doubt, and it is these very moments where we have the opportunity to define ourselves.

Perhaps the best example of a character who is limited by fear and indecision is the central figure in T. S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Prufrock is a deeply thoughtful, intellectual and imaginative man, but he is paralyzed by his timidity and obsessive wondering what others think of him, and he is so painfully self‐conscious that he is inhibited from all action, and he asks himself such questions as "Do I dare? and Do I dare?" and later "Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a


He thinks about his life and whether or not he has "time yet for a hundred indecisions" and it is interesting that he does not measure his life by decisions but rather indecisions, suggesting he is aware of his inability to live fully. He continually says "there will be time" to make up his mind, but we have the strong sense he will never be able to do so. He will never dare to eat that peach.

Risk‐taking is not about simply taking a giant leap. It is not about momentary bravery. It is about sustained courage to try new things or even more importantly to be your whole true self. It is about your ability to follow your inclination even when it differs from what those around you are doing.

The year is moving towards the final months of school. I challenge you to think of my friend Grubs, and identify your own metaphorical fear of the dark. And then go after it.


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