Fear Is a Liar

I have always felt different: I’m the shortest of my siblings. I was the only black kid in my class for six out of thirteen years. I was one of the few (if not the only) kid on my block leaving my neighborhood to attend a private school. I have often been (or felt like) the only Christian in the room. I have felt different because of how I look (veiny arms for a woman, too much weight and too many curves when I wanted to be a ballerina, my overbite). But mostly I feel different because of the thoughts that enter (uninvited) into my brain and the fears (though unwelcome) that I begrudgingly entertain.

Every now and again I will let an ordinary occurrence engender a dark daydream. For example, just the other evening I was walking down the street as two men smoking cigarettes were walking towards me. And for some reason I wondered the following: What if one of them decided to put his cigarette out in my eye? I don’t know where that thought came from or why, but there it was as they passed me by. Thankfully, worries like that are usually short-lived, but I wish they didn’t exist.

I’m afraid of so many things. I fear the call at an odd hour is bad news. I’m afraid of the dark—black hole dark—the kind of deep dark that doesn’t even permit shadows. I’m afraid of dying (especially painfully or violently), but sometimes I find the concept of living forever almost equally terrifying. I’m afraid of flying, falling, and crashing. I’m afraid of not trying, of failing, and of succeeding. I’m afraid of getting hurt—emotionally and physically. I’m afraid of never living up to my mother’s legacy—or of living a life that leaves no good mark—or one devoid of meaning. And given the fraught final years of my grandparents’ lives, I’m afraid of what my old age will look like. Mostly I’m afraid I’m getting it all wrong, that I’m wasting time, and that (given the missteps I’ve made) there’s no good way forward—no way to recover.

If I could set aside any aspect of my humanity, I would disown my fear. That emotion drives me in directions I do not want to go. It keeps me inactive or slows my progress to a crawl. It renders me distracted—preoccupied with potential pitfalls and worst-case scenarios (however unlikely or unrealistic).

Fear of what awaits prevents me from more fully engaging in whatever (or whoever) is before me in the present. Fear of embarrassment or failure stops me from taking more chances. Fear of being misunderstood, dismissed, or disliked makes me hold my tongue. I withdraw from certain experiences for fear of getting hurt.

When I don’t act or take a risk, it is usually because of fear disguised as wisdom. When I don’t dream—when I hang back from an opportunity, it is because of fear clothed to look like being realistic or practicality.

Fear stills my hands, binds my feet, and shackles my tongue. Fear turns my head away form my hopes and dreams and focuses my eyes on the worst-case scenario. It nails my aspirations to the ground. Fear persuades me to expect the worst even in the midst of the best. Fear denies me peace and sound sleep—it won’t allow for a moment of rest.

I have spent my lifetime learning how to undermine my fears—to shine a light on them until they disappear. At first they look mountainous, but in the face of faith and logic, few of them stand up.

All too often my fear is a liar. It pretends to be prudence. It acts insurmountable. But most of what I fear can’t or won’t ever be real. There is little foundation or substance to much of what scares me. Most of my fears are more rooted in dysfunctional imagination than reality.

Every time I set aside a fear I become a bit more free. Without fear, I enjoy things more deeply. Without fear I can more fully inhabit the present. Without fear, I don’t have to worry about what others think, and so I speak and act with more honesty.

Fear will come from time to time; it is a natural emotion. What I’m trying to avoid is giving fear too much control. There are a few fears that might save my life, but surrendering too much to fear will shrink my living down to an unhealthy size.

Doing Nothing

Sometimes I feel as though I’m doing nothing. And since I don’t spend my days staring at a wall in a catatonic state, what I really mean by “doing nothing” is doing nothing important—nothing of any significance or weight—nothing that leaves an indelible mark around me. There are people living big, multiple lives. I don’t mean they’re duplicitous—not the man with a family in Philadelphia and another in Pittsburg. What I mean is that these people manage to cram so much living into their one life, that it’s almost as though they’re living many times over. It’s the woman who volunteered in Uganda, drove her motorcycle across Europe, went to law school, invented something that became ubiquitous, climbed Mt. Everest, started a non-profit organization that saves or improves the lives of the marginalized, and tomorrow she turns thirty.

I can’t help but look at my life sometimes and wonder why it’s seems so little by comparison. How are so many others doing so much more? Where do they find the time and the motivation? Have I slept late too many mornings? Have I watched too much television? Should I not have spent that weekend back in 2002 defeating Halo? Do I nap too often?

My life is full of procrastinations and distractions. Many little unimportant things have devoured massive chunks of my time. Is this how others manage to live big, multiple lives—by avoiding all things trivial? Could I do the same? I’m addicted to my frivolities, but I enjoy the addiction. I want to be changed without having to exert the effort of actually changing. I’m that person who would like to be fluent in French or Italian, but not enough to study.

All this feels like an excuse wrapped in a complaint—or a complaint wrapped in an excuse, but it doesn’t fix me to know that. It’s as though I’ve diagnosed the disease and prescribed the cure, but I can’t find the energy to walk to the drug store. Which also makes me wonder if something else is wrong with me—or if I’m what’s wrong with me. Maybe I don’t know what I really want. Or maybe I’m not willing to give up what it costs.

There are things that I tell myself (and others) I want to do, but I don’t really—otherwise I’d be doing them. Right? These are the things I wish I wanted to do. For instance, I don’t want to exercise every day—but I want to want to. And there’s the rub. It’s that extra “want to” that I have to hurdle. The only thing harder than overcoming a double “want to” is not getting swept up in a “don’t want to want to.” For example, I don’t want to want to eat a second serving of pizza, fried chicken, or apple crisp à la mode—or an entire Toblerone milk chocolate bar—but I do want to. And so I get in the way of my own goals and push myself into the holes I’ve already dug.

And then, like a light bulb that has to be replaced all too often, a familiar solution dawns on me. Nike had it right: just do it. I need to reprimand my impertinent inner child that throws a tantrum at the slightest hint of self-imposed discipline. I need to just get that writing done. I need to just leave that second helping of pizza, fried chicken, or apple crisp à la mode for tomorrow. I need to just save some of that milk chocolate Toblerone for another day. I need to just put on my sneakers and get moving and sweating. I can’t sit around waiting to simply want to do those things I know I should do; I need to just do them. Wanting to may not come today (or tomorrow). Some days the fact that I should has to be enough. This is how I rediscover my lost discipline. I stop saying or thinking that I should or want to (want to) do something, and I just get about doing it—today. It’s just that simple, but simple isn’t always easy.