"Fear closes the door on the things that tell us not to be afraid."
A spiritual mentor once shared that “fear closes the door on the things that tell us not to be afraid.” This piece of wisdom changed me. I knew that fear was inhibiting to growth but had never thought about it as a blinder, as a curtain between what is desired and what it takes to fully achieve what is desired. I present myself as a relatively fearless person, but I am afraid of a lot. Robots. Dentists. Guns. Failure. Letting people down. Not being enough. Not having enough. Being alone. Being unloved. It is easy to imagine how these fears might and do hold me back both personally and professionally. I often find myself waiting for permission, apologizing more than I should, and asking questions like “is it okay if…?” or “does that seem right?” even when I know it’s okay and that it’s right. However, I have learned that there is more to it than just being held back. Being afraid can blind us to or block us from the powers, knowledge, and wisdom that serve to dissolve and extinguish fears in the first place. Faith. Intrinsic gifts. Well-finessed skills. Past praise and accomplishments. Support from family, friends, or mentors. When I choose to recognize and call on these latter forces rather than give into fear, I am far more powerful and effective as a professional, friend, partner, and person.
Growing up, I was a softball pitcher. For about ten years, I devoted most of my non-studying time to the sport, always playing on multiple teams at a time, and working with a private coach to improve my practice. I loved being in the pitcher’s circle, the feeling of control in even the most stressful situations, the ability to control the pace of the game, and the satisfaction of striking somebody out with people on base. For most of my teenage years, my family’s schedule revolved around practices and traveling to tournaments. My dad caught for me during warm-ups and stood behind the backstop when I was on the mound. My parents were my biggest fans and believed I could do anything. While I was never going to be a division 1 player, I was mostly successful and was recruited to play in college. I dominated in my first fall ball game (minus the homerun that was hit in the first inning—I think that the ball is still traveling!). And then my shoulder fell apart during spring training. I tried to rehab and traveled with the team as their loudest cheerleader. Eventually, I needed surgery. After I came out, the doctor told us that the damage to my shoulder was worse than anticipated and he didn’t think I would be able to play again. I tried anyway. I pushed. I struggled. I had no idea who I was without the game and I felt like I was losing my identity. I was terrified.
The day came when I had to admit to myself that my pitching career was over. I set up a meeting with the coach and literally made myself sick in anticipation of the meeting. I felt that I was failing myself, my team, my school, and perhaps more heart wrenchingly, my dad. I hated that I didn’t have control over the situation, that no matter how hard I worked my body was not going to cooperate. And I was scared about losing who I was and what I was good at. I cried through the first five minutes of the meeting and walked out feeling empty, depleted, and lost. “What now?” I thought, “Who am I now?”
Less than twenty-four hours later, one of my ex-teammates who knew about some of my community service work in high school invited me to volunteer at a local nursing home with her. Less than twenty-four hours after that, she asked me to help her run a volunteer event with a local school. Less than six months after that, I was asked to run a community service program for over a hundred incoming freshmen. Ten years later, I can look back and say that losing softball was the blessing that set me on the track to discovering who I truly was, how many gifts I had to offer the world (many of which were also useful as a pitcher), and my calling to make the world a better and more loving place. I had to lose my identity to find my identity, to get out of bed when I was at my lowest to see beyond the door that closed. I had to trust that my dad was still going to love me even though he couldn’t be my catcher anymore. I had to look fear square in the eyes to see the myriad factors and powers confirming that I didn’t have anything to fear.
Living beyond fear requires holding the imperfections and paradoxes of life in tension. We can choose to fear uncertainty, or we can live into it, recognizing that uncertainty is perhaps the only certain thing. We can attempt to predict and control our lives and others’ perceptions of our lives, we can try to fight and resist change, we can work to minimize the potential for failure. Yet, I find that the more I seek to control, the less in control I feel, the harder I fight against change, the more change that is required, the more relentlessly I seek perfection, the higher the likelihood for failure. I have discovered that the decisions I make that are dictated by conscious or unconscious fear produce additional anxiety and amplify the fear itself. One of the consistent traps that I fall into is feeling comfortable and safe with what I know and choosing to stick with that even when I feel unsettled, uncertain, or that change is necessary. I tend to immobilize myself by imagining all the terrible things that might happen with a change, and subsequently force myself to adjust to unpleasant or sometimes even unhealthy situations and relationships. I know that these tendencies shrink and confine my potential, but it is hard to break out of the patterns of behavior that hinge on a desire for safety, security, and comfort. I therefore strive to find grounding in the gifts I have been given and the work I am called to do, to sit comfortably on the lumpy seat of uncertainty, trusting that I am all that I need to be and all that I can be. I am finding that even though I have not yet found the courage to take the bigger risks I know are coming in my life, I am already spending more time living the life I am meant to live and less time worrying and waiting. I refuse to let my life be run by fear of what “could be” or what “could have been.” I trust in the forces that tell me not to be afraid.