“…And you ask ‘What if I fall?’
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?”
– from the poem by Erin Hanson
A new year always feels full of new possibilities, doesn’t it? But with possibility comes a certain amount of risk. We don’t usually get to create the life we want without sometimes taking a step or two in the dark, without venturing outside the warm cocoon of our comfort zone. So lately, I’ve been thinking about how we can discern which risks we want — or even need — to take. How do we find ways to be brave, even if just for a moment, when it counts the most? One way I’ve learned is by getting up close and personal with fear itself.
Risk is a scary word. It means exposure to the chance of injury or loss; it means, a dangerous chance. I don’t know about you, but there are at least five words in that definition that are scary to me. Even as a kid, I didn’t enjoy taking risks. Climb the highest tree? Mmm, no thanks, I’m good here, halfway up. Confront someone and risk their becoming upset with me? Oh, I’d rather not. I didn’t like physical danger, I didn’t enjoy personal conflict or even competition. I liked peace and cooperation and safety; and mostly,I still do.
Not Cowardly…But Chronic
Coward is an ugly word, so let’s just call me someone who usually considers herself not-brave. Here’s the irony, though: I think now, at age 50, I may actually have become a reluctant expert on risk. How? Did someone push me out of an airplane? No, and…yes. Because, although I am a generally cheerful and responsible person, I also have chronic anxiety. This means that some days, I walk around flooded with fear for absolutely no good reason whatsoever. Some days, every single thing feels like a risk to me.
Waking up? My stomach is in knots of anxiety about nothing in particular.
Time to get dressed, eat, work? Oh, terrifying.
Falling asleep? Brain floods body with terror.
Charging rhino? Only just a wee bit more terrifying than the rest of my day.
You can see how all this might make a person a little risk-weary, a little reluctant to go out and court any actual danger. Add the anxiety issue to my natural peace-loving nature and you have a recipe for hiding under the covers and maybe never coming out. But…here I am. And as Sensei Miranda teaches us, I am not.throwing.away.my. shot.
What I’ve learned, through painful experience, is that our brains are great big chickens. They are all about self-preservation. They want us to be afraid of taking a risk, and they’re not good at seeing past that risk to scenarios in which wonderful things happen as a result. Sometimes, the human brain will even “help”us (isn’t that sweet?) by looking ahead and telling us some pretty damn creative stories. The brain will not only anticipate bad outcomes, but will also try and solve or otherwise deal with every dangerous thing that might ever happen to any person in the whole world. The scientific term for this horrifying level of imaginative agony is worry. So: to be human and deliberately take a real risk means ignoring that powerful urge we all have that says, “No. Remain safe at all costs.”
With meditation and mindfulness, I am now engaged in the practice of teaching my brain that it’s OK for it to stop trying so very hard to protect me. “Protection mode” floods the human body with flight-or-fight chemicals. The resulting fear and worry can destroy happiness in the here and now. And they can stop us from taking the risks that would bring us joy.
My Three Rules of Fear
So, what can we do about fear when we feel it holding us back from a “good” risk? Here’s what I think.
One, keep in mind that 99.9% of the time, fear doesn’t do us any good. It lies. Unless a rhino really is charging you, most of the fear you feel is not actually working in your best interest. Just because you feel afraid of something doesn’t mean you have to react with fear. You are actually the one in charge, not your brain’s protection mode. Your brain is very, very good at bullshitting you and painting vivid, bloody pictures of worst-case scenarios and zombie apocalypses. Try to learn to recognize unnecessary, illogical fear, laugh at it, and let it go. Ask yourself: what would Mr. Spock say about this scenario? If the Vulcan in your mind has raised an eloquent eyebrow at you in that way which denotes the opinion that humans are primitive idiots, you have your answer. Proceed without fear.
Two, be aware of this subtle spiritual truth: the opposite of Love isn’t hatred. It is fear. Love and fear cannot dwell together. So in learning to disengage my own toxic anxiety, I don’t ignore it; but I don’t hate it or fight it, either. I know that Love (yes, Love with a capital L, because to me we are talking about sacred Love here) and fear are polar opposites. So: I thank my fear for wanting to keep me safe. But I tell it, Look, you’re off duty. That is a fascinating and clever story of destruction you just told me, but do us all a favor, for God’s sake: go home and take a nap. Treating my own fear with the antidote of Love and understanding has become one way for me to find that oasis of calm.
And three, try to have faith that on the other side of your maximum fear is often…the greatest happiness of your life.
This third one comes from the actor Will Smith’s story about going skydiving. He talks about his absolute terror beforehand, and his absolute bliss the moment he realized he was flying. Once he was flying, he could only look back on his fear and shake his head at how ridiculous it was. In just a few seconds, he learned that his fear had been totally unnecessary and useless; all it had done was ruin his day. Boy, can I relate to that. I don’t even want to try and count the number of days, let alone the potentially happy moments, I’ve had ruined by my anxiety and fear. I grieve for those lost chances, for those gifts of peace and joy I didn’t open. But all I can do now is try not to add to that sad pile of missed opportunities.
Bravery at Just the Right Moments
Even amid my struggles as a not-brave person, I’ve managed to take some risks that I now see were the most wonderful things I could possibly have done. The biggest intentional risk I ever took was motherhood. (Parenthood, if done correctly, will pretty much destroy – and then rebuild – every aspect of your life.) I’ll be honest: it took me until I was over the age of 30 to get brave enough to decide I wanted a baby. My niece was very small at the time, and one day when I was cuddling her, her velvety, newly shampooed baby head smelled so good that I started to cry. Suddenly I was flooded with maternal yearnings that would not go away.
As with most things, once I knew I wanted it, right away a whole lot of nothing happened. For a few years, in fact. And then: my joy when I realized I was finally expecting (at age 36, after 15 years of marriage!) was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Pregnancy felt like a spiritual journey as well as a physical challenge. I had never felt so alive and full of hope and possibility. Although yes, OK, sometimes the puking and the swollen ankles distracted me.
My big impending-motherhood heresy was this: I refused to look at pregnancy and birth as medical emergencies to be managed and endured.
While I was pregnant, this not-brave woman made a conscious choice to do her best to trust her body, to have faith that it would do what it was made to do. Pregnancy is hard, but for me, it was also a natural process, a precious gift to be embraced. It felt, in a word, sacred. I know — that flies in the face of everything Western medicine tells us as women, doesn’t it? What, bring a child into the world without a (male) doctor to orchestrate and control every moment? What kind of risky feminist madness was that? And yet it rang true to me. In fact, it made me fierce…even brave.
Of course I was scared when my water broke. I was scared during the drive to the hospital, when I really, really realized this was happening to me and there was no way to get out of it. But I had a birthing dream team. And I trusted my midwife, my doula, my mother, and my husband to surround me with Love. This is where I really learned the lesson that fear’s opposite is Love. Because of course, there were those moments of fear. But the fear just didn’t stand a chance against the towering Love in that room.
Also, in case you were wondering, there was a simply gob-smacking, astonishing level of physical pain. I literally did not know anything could hurt so much that it could pick me up body and soul, turn me upside down, and drop me off a cliff headfirst. But I found out something else amazing while I was delivering my son: that pain you are NOT AFRAID OF has much less power over you. I knew that fear makes every difficult task even harder. So: contractions were not the enemy to be fought against, but a powerful force I went along with willingly. The pain was as elemental and all-consuming as a tidal wave, so resistance was futile anyway; but not being afraid of drowning in it? That was a choice. Trusting that wave to bring my baby safely to me? That was a choice, too. And on the other side, I was born as a mother; and yes, I flew. I have no words for that level of perfect joy. And I have not touched the ground since. (There is no parachute for parenthood; in that way, maybe skydiving really is easier. I bet Will Smith would agree with me on this.)
The other “big risk” I’ve taken is a creative and career one. Now, as I hope to God you’ve noticed by now, I’m a writer. Since I was a child, words have been my favorite medium. For decades of my adult life, I had also been part of a lot of design projects. I’d done magazine and calendar layouts. I’d taken photography classes. I’d developed what I like to think of as a good eye — but nobody ever paid me to design anything visual. I cannot draw or paint, so I thought my visual creativity was mostly a hobby, good for decorating and fashion, but not a marketable skill.
Then, in 2015, I fell in love with these pretty little adhesive nail wraps I saw online, and joined the Jamberry company as a consultant. This was 100% crazy and 100% outside my comfort zone. I risked some money and time; there could have been failure and humiliation if I’d been terrible at it. But I got comfortable standing up in front of roomfuls of people, demonstrating and teaching and answering questions. I enjoyed that. Along the way, I took Jamberry’s free courses about how to create and manage a Facebook business page. I found I had a love not just for a beautiful manicure (which of course is very important for a happy life), but for combining words and images. For understanding a message and sharing it using every creative tool at my disposal, from fonts to colors to photographs.
In 2018, I retired from Jamberry. To my own surprise, I didn’t need my side hustle anymore; I had become a mostly self-taught graphic designer. Today I do social media, websites, and marketing for businesses and nonprofits. I’m communicating with words but also, in my modest way, making visual art, somehow. And it’s my dream job. It is my happy place. It’s the reason you’re reading this blog right now.
I still think of myself as a person who is just not very brave. But when I look around at my life, I see it: I would not have my son, who is the walking, talking, absolute center of my soul, without choosing risk. I would not have this marvelously fun and satisfying job without choosing risk. And you know what else? The risks didn’t end with those choices. No. Keeping both child and career healthy and happy and growing requires me to endure more risk, every single day! It’s risk that never stops. Yet somehow I don’t just survive those risks, I’ve learned to thrive on them. (Take that, scaredy-cat brain. Take that, worry reflex.)
Fear is sound and fury, a big lying liar usually signifying nothing.
But once you see through the facade, you have put on wisdom like a pair of brand-new glasses. Suddenly, you know what’s really going on. Most of us can’t be brave all the time, but we don’t have to be; perfectly timed moments of bravery are all we need. And maybe the way we know which risks are worth it is when we allow ourselves to be bold enough to imagine a world in which our chosen risks pay off big. A world in which…we fly.