How fear can be transformed into confidence

23 Jun 2024

Many years ago when I was in my teens, I lived in a small Kentucky, USA town and one of my requirements in school was to learn Spanish. I enjoyed learning this new language, but I became discouraged. I struggled to understand the point of learning Spanish. A much younger me thought, "Why? No one here speaks Spanish... And I won't have the money or ability to travel in the near future or maybe even at all...." I think I voiced this to my 10th grade Spanish teacher, Susan Stucker, who tried to encourage me. She found a way for me to participate at little cost in a two week student exchange living with a host family in the northern suburbs of Madrid.\

“Estoy harta de tu queja.” I vaguely remember her saying this. “I am tired of your complaining.”

My talkative teacher arranged for me to go on this trip. I never thought I would be going to Spain, but she found some unknown funds from generous donors. Suddenly, I was on an airplane to Spain with her and 5 or 6 other students.\

I was a good student and rather than being someone whose comportment my teacher worried about, she was encouraging me to be less uptight. \

“Try the sangria.”\

I know she thought this experience would change my life, but I don’t think she knew when that would happen. \

My Spanish was just a little better at the time than the other students. I remember being a human dictionary for them (a teen Google Translate of sorts) when they wanted to tell a shopkeeper what flavor of candy or ice cream they wanted.

“Fresa.”  “Strawberry”\

I remember the smell of fried sardines the mother of my host family made. It was so delicious! And I recall the pounds I gained from the rich chorizo and chocolates she packed for me to take in a sack lunch.

Though our student budget was slim, we did go into the urban areas of Madrid once or twice to see the Prado Museum and Fountain of Cibeles. I remember having very little pocket money. I did not buy any souvenirs. I was able to buy a Spanish chocolate candy bar to bring back home for a “best” friend who was disappointed when she saw it.

“You got me a chocolate bar from Spain? That’s it?”\

I was not a hardy traveler and it took me a while to get over the strenuous emotional changes that happen sometimes with international travel. Wanderlust lay dormant for decades, but ultimately, I decided to travel again.

My experiences led me to return to Spain this year. I have been studying Spanish part time and online for the past 2 years. My ability to understand and even speak Spanish has increased some. I have a greater appreciation for learning this and any language as well as the cultures of the Spanish speaking world. While I am far from fluent in Spanish even with continued study, I am improving and I greatly appreciate my high school teacher, Susan Stucker, for her encouragement and for broadening my worldview at an early age.

I was worried about going on this trip but it was not because I did not want to go. I was experiencing a fear of leaving my comfort zone. My short trip with a tour group took me again to the northern suburbs of Spain and to the Prado Museum, but I also traveled to a few other cities and experienced a Spain much different than the one from my youth.

Though it was not on the itinerary, someone on my trip convinced me to go with her and others to a bullfight. This would not have been something I chose to do ordinarily, but I tried to go into this experience with an open mind and see what I could learn.

I got a ticket for the bullfight but because we had waited until the last minute to get seating, there were no seats together. I bought a seat far away from the others. As I tried to climb the stadium steps to my seat, I asked other spectators along the way for help finding my spot. I did sit in the wrong place (awkward as ever) and had to be notified by my neighbors. Ultimately, I found a spot to sit on the concrete and I watched the bullfight respectfully and peacefully, taking occasional pictures like a tourist, and speaking whatever garbled Spanish I knew with my kind neighbors to either side.

I won’t pretend I know much about the history or actual meaning of bullfighting. I also can’t comment on the animal safety aspects of this because I don’t know much about that. I tried to show respect for the cultural event and come to the stadium with a beginner’s mind. With these caveats in mind, I just want to share what I felt internally and what I learned about confidence from the bullfight.

The bullfight occurs in a large arena in a stadium. This arena seemed to me like a metaphor for life. Death likely occurs in the arena and comes for someone. There is a living being that will not get out of the arena alive. Will it be the bull? Will it be the matador? There are more humans in the arena that work together to stack the deck against the bull. It's not fair? Life isn’t fair. The circumstances that bring the bull and the matador to the arena are governed by chance as well.

Both the matadors and the bull have the potential to kill each other in the arena. I found that I could not look away. The reason I could not look away was that I felt connected to the bull and matador in their actions to relive what I felt were the lessons of the arena, the lessons of life.

In the arena, the matadors must distract the bull from hurting them and also actively seek the bull’s death. I was told that the bull must be naive to the ways of bullfighting to participate. During the process, the matador leads with confidence and hides whatever fear he might have of the bull’s size, aggression and ferocity. There is a potential for severe disability and even death if the bull harms the matador, but it is crucial that the matadors never break character. They work as a team to distract, confuse and wound the bull. The matadors play to an audience of hundreds drawing all eyes to them in a spectacle who bellow “Olé" in a pleased fashion if they are doing well.

The 5 rules of the matador:

  1. Lead with confidence
  2. Never break character
  3. Work in a team
  4. All eyes on you

In life, I can see how important it is to lead with confidence no matter how afraid you might feel. Confidence comes with experience and failure. Never break character to show vulnerability. It's only if you break character that anyone might notice if you messed up or that things have not gone as planned.  Good teamwork can prevent failure in many situations. Finally, there is always an audience that judges you on everything you try.

I can only imagine that if I was the bull what I would learn. The bull is a tremendously strong and dangerous animal that I was told was bred to be aggressive. During the course of the bullfight, the matadors confuse and wound the bull several times. But even in its most reduced state, the bull has tremendous power to hurt the matador. First and third lesson of the bull: Never forget your power and It's not over until it's over. If the bull runs after the matadors, it takes the bait and begins the bullfight. If the bull does not run towards the matadors and is pacifist it will be set free. Second lesson of the bull: Don't take the bait. If the bull is able to gore and harm a matador, it can make a severe injury. Fourth lesson of the bull: Make your mark. And finally the more aggressively the bull attacks the matadors, the more they work in a team to cause death for the bull.  Fifth lesson of the bull: Aggression quickens death.

5 lessons of the bull

  1. Never forget your power
  2. Don’t take the bait
  3. It's not over until it's over
  4. Make your mark
  5. Aggression quickens death

Strangely, I felt during the bullfight that I was participating or that this experience was part of my life experience as well. I felt connected to the matadors and bulls. I tried to learn from the experience so that their sacrifices would teach me something. What I learned about confidence from this experience was so valuable to me. We are all dancing a dance of mindset when we are trying to be confident. We don’t want to show the enemy our fears so that we can vanquish them. Whether it's facing a micromanaging boss or an ex that hates your guts and is sashaying with their new girlfriend in your direction, there are people with whom and times at which it's important to show how unafraid you are. The bravado protects you more than actually not feeling afraid. Being genuine and vulnerable has its place, but so does hiding your flaws and exhibiting confidence like a shiny coat of armor.

My trip to Spain was short, but what I learned from my experiences might last a long time.  I don't think my high school Spanish teacher would have expected that I would learn my Spanish lessons decades later. They are life lessons instead. I don’t think she expected her good deed to help me get to Spain for the student exchange would have this effect. But then again, neither did I.

I got a Spanish candy bar as a souvenir this time - for myself.