One of the most majestic of all creatures is the tiger. For many years these big beautiful creatures have puzzled researchers. It seems that when tigers hunt they have a remarkable capacity for causing their prey to paralyse with fear, a capacity greater than any of the other big cats. As the tiger charges toward its hapless prey it lets out a spine chilling roar. Now you’d think this would be enough to cause the prey to turn and run for its life, but instead it often freezes and soon becomes tiger food.
At the turn of this century scientists at the Fauna Communication Research Institute in North Carolina discovered why you’re likely to freeze to the spot rather than run when the tiger charges. When the tiger roars it lets out sound waves that are audible – the ones that sound terrifying – and its also lets out sound at a frequency so low you can’t hear it, but you can feel it. And so, as the tiger emerges from the undergrowth the flashing of its colours, the sound of its roar and the impact of the unheard but felt sound waves combine to provide an all out assault on your senses. The effect is that you are momentarily paralysed, so even though there may be time to avoid the tiger, you are tricked into standing still long enough for the tiger to leap on you.
Our fears often operate in the same way. They paralyse us into inactivity, even when the real threat is not immediately upon us. Part of overcoming the challenges before us is to recognise the ability for our fear of what might happen to stop us from dealing well with the challenge.
Philip Island, in Victoria Australia, plays host to one of the greatest nature experiences possible. On the shores of Philip Island are the burrows of thousands upon thousands of fairy penguins, extraordinarily cute little birds that stand only 30cm or so tall. Every morning the adult penguins head out to sea to catch fish. At the end of the day they return to land to bring back food for their chicks. Watching them get from the water to their burrows is both funny and exhilarating. The penguins surf in on the waves, then gather in groups at the water’s edge. Their burrows are 100 metres or so away, with the open space of the sandy beach between them. All of a sudden a group of penguins will take off, waddling as fast as their little legs will carry them across the beach. But then, having got 10 or 20 metres they’ll suddenly turn around and waddle back to the water. They wait, then try again. One group makes it, but another performs this strange ritual of turning back. And on it goes, through the dying light of day, until finally the penguins have all crossed the beach and met their chicks in their burrows.
What’s going on? Why the strange stop-start-return ritual? The answer’s quite simple. At sea the birds are fast swimmers, able to dive deep. At sea they’re safe from predators such as eagles and hawks and dogs and cats. In their burrows their safe below ground. But on the open beach they’re vulnerable and exposed. On the beach they can only waddle slowly and are easy pickings for predators. And so, as they cross the beach, the moment they see a shadow or something out of the corner of their eye, they turn back and race for the safety of the water.
It seems that we humans are a lot like those fairy penguins. When confronted with challenging situations we find ourselves like the penguins standing at the water’s edge. We know where we’ve got to go, we know we’ve got to get across that beach to get back to the burrow, but it can be so terrifying. When we step out of the water and start waddling across the beach we leave our safety zone behind, we’re in no-man’s land where it’s dangerous, uncertain and where we’re vulnerable. Yet to get to the burrow we must leave the safety zone behind and strike out into the danger zone.
Source: Scott Higgins.