As a gen­eral rule of life, I try to say ‘yes’ un­less there’s a damn good rea­son to say ‘no,’ but—and I don’t think it’s mid­dle age talk­ing here—with kids to man­age and bills to pay, it can feel like life is so busy that say­ing ‘no’ is the only op­tion.

OK, that does sounds like mid­dle age talk­ing.

But the truth is that it’s not the bills or re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that are mak­ing me say no; it’s be­cause I’m scared of get­ting hurt again. It’s hard to be­lieve it’s been al­most two years since the fall that would change the way I looked at life. It wasn’t on a sketchy down­hill or on some treach­er­ous rock-laden route, but on a trail I’d been rid­ing since high school—one that was so fa­mil­iar that I of­ten rode it with noth­ing more than dap­pled moon­light guid­ing my path.

For decades, the spi­der­web of sin­gle­track had been both my home and es­cape, and I trusted it as much as one can trust dirt, roots and rocks. And yet, the fa­mil­iar­ity was nowhere to be found as I lay sprawled on the ground, lick­ing my wounds and try­ing to dis­cern up from down. Mo­ments be­fore, ev­ery­thing was or­di­nary. But splayed atop the pine nee­dles, the sliver of dirt that taught me to love the ride looked like a stranger ca­pa­ble of chang­ing my life with a sin­gle shove.

Re­cov­ery wasn’t short or easy, and it was far from pain­less. The bruises faded soon enough, but the jury is still out as to whether the deeper wounds will dis­ap­pear en­tirely or be­come per­ma­nent ad­di­tions to my body’s scrap­book of ad­ven­tures, mishaps and life lessons. These days, I’m mostly back to nor­mal, or as nor­mal as any­one who hails from Florida and con­sid­ers jorts per­fectly ac­cept­able rid­ing garb can be. Ex­cept, there’s this weird thing that’s been hap­pen­ing.

I’ve been say­ing ‘no,’ even as I hear my younger self scream­ing ‘yes’ from some cav­ern deep in­side. I’ve fallen plenty be­fore, but this one scared me in a way that oth­ers haven’t be­cause I never saw it com­ing. Though the scrapes are healed and I’ve got­ten back in the sad­dle more times than I can count, I can still feel the fear try­ing to grab hold of life’s steer­ing wheel.

There’s a lot you can pass off as a side ef­fect of be­ing a mid­dle-aged sub­ur­ban parent. Drink­ing be­fore noon is so­cially ac­cept­able as long as you mix it with V8 and a cel­ery stick. Park­ing your bike in the liv­ing room is no longer viewed as a side ef­fect of be­ing poor, but a proud dis­play of pri­or­i­ties. And say­ing ‘no’ is viewed as a sen­si­ble de­ci­sion when paired with an ex­cuse of self-preser­va­tion and the catchall rea­son­ing of, “I don’t want to get hurt.”

For as long as I can re­mem­ber, I’ve had

a love/hate re­la­tion­ship with fear. The anx­ious churn­ing in my stom­ach has al­ways en­cour­aged me to try harder, plan bet­ter and re­lin­quish that which I can­not con­trol. On the trail, fear is my ever-present rid­ing buddy—the one that heck­les me from the side­lines as I ses­sion an ob­sta­cle that has my num­ber. The shouts cause me to freeze up at first, but each time I shut them out a lit­tle more. When I fi­nally see through the noise and fo­cus en­tirely on what’s in front of me, I can feel fear’s silent ap­plause just off trail.

Lately, in­stead of turn­ing back around and try­ing again, I find my­self rolling on past.

“Not this time,” I tell my­self. “I don’t want to get hurt.”

Some vari­a­tion of ‘no’ has be­come my knee-jerk re­sponse more of­ten than not. The drop that’s just out­side my com­fort zone? Not today. The epic ad­ven­ture for which I haven’t pre­pared aside from see­ing how many ribs I can en­dure be­fore get­ting meat sweats? I’m not ready. Rid­ing in­stead of driv­ing? I’ll start to­mor­row. Tak­ing a break from the daily grind to hop on the bike for some quick-and-dirty fun? I wish I could, but I don’t have the time.

It’s so easy to say ‘no.’ In do­ing so, I get to side­step the pos­si­bil­ity of fail­ure and avoid the pain of en­dur­ing. I let my­self off the hook with the prom­ise that I’ll do it to­mor­row, know­ing full well that to­mor­row is safely sealed in the fu­ture.

The funny thing about say­ing ‘no’ is that it can work in both di­rec­tions. While the fear drives me to pro­tect my­self from un­cer­tainty and doubt, I re­ject its empty prom­ises of safety. In­stead, I force my­self to face the un­com­fort­able re­al­ity that I will fall again. Prob­a­bly hardI er. I might see it com­ing or dis­as­ter may strike in a blur of laugh­ter and over-con­fi­dence. But part of learn­ing to walk is be­ing pre­pared to fall.

I say ‘no’ to the fear and will my fore­fin­gers to lay off the brakes a lit­tle longer than the time be­fore. When propo­si­tioned to go on an all-day ride, know­ing it will end up big­ger than ad­ver­tised with more mishaps than my Zi­ploc bag of tools can han­dle, I re­luc­tantly agree. In do­ing so, I re­al­ize I can use my re­cent pen­chant for say­ing ‘no’ to work for me.

I’m say­ing ‘no’ to avoid­ing mis­takes, to go­ing fast when should be go­ing slow and to go­ing slow when I should be let­ting go. When fear tries to take hold of the steer­ing wheel, I force it into the back­seat where it be­longs. This is my road, and I’m the only one who’s driv­ing.

Say­ing ‘no’ won’t stop me from get­ting hurt, but it will stop me from en­joy­ing life on my terms. It’s time to see how the story ends. Maybe there’s a plot twist I don’t know about. Or maybe the crash and burn will spark the fire that’s been miss­ing from life.

What­ever the an­swer is, it’s some­where in the fu­ture wait­ing for me to say ‘yes.’

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