Originally published November 6, 2011.
My husband said to me recently, after a disagreement about how I operate my professional and personal life, “You know I really admire the way you fling yourself blindly into life. It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with you. But it’s just not smart.”
You’ve probably heard statements like this dozens of times: “I love you, but….” We all hear them. They are the bane of happy relationships. If you love somebody, but this or that, maybe you shouldn’t be with him or her…unless, of course, you have to be. You have to look after your kids, your parents, that dog you adopted from the SPCA.
This post isn’t about loving some but not all of a person, however. It’s about living, not blindly, but, as I prefer to argue, openly.
And I’m not talking about hopping out of the proverbial closet if you’re gay or letting your grown children know you’ve divorced…six months after it has happened. I’m talking about being open to life, to the opportunities it offers at every turn, the opportunities we often miss because we’re afraid, afraid of trying something new, striking up a conversation with a stranger, saying “yes” when our self-protective instinct wants to say “no.”
Everything extraordinary that has ever happened in my life has happened because I took a massive leap of faith, defied the naysayers, hoped, believed, and closed my eyes and jumped. When I told an acquaintance of mine once that much as I enjoyed sea kayaking, I didn’t know if I was up for whitewater, he said, “Whitewater kayaking is all about fear management.”
So is life. Conquer your fear, and the thing you thought you couldn’t do becomes possible, manageable, maybe even smart.
For those of you who have been reading my columns in newspapers and magazines for the past decade, you have heard all of this, to some degree or another, many times before. But I think it bears repeating. It is probably why my dad, from the time I was a teenager until deep into my adult life, would tell me every time I left home to go on a date, return to college, go back to my apartment in the city, “Drive fast, and take chances.” He wasn’t talking about how to drive my car (though I’ve been lead-footed, I’ll admit, since age 16); he was talking about how to live my life.
Overcome fear. No matter what. Overcome it.
As many a philosopher has pointed out over the centuries, it is beyond fear that we find the true meaning of our lives.
When I was a child, I was incredibly afraid. Everything from piano recitals to going away for a weeklong church summer camp terrified me. They pushed me outside my comfort zone. It was one thing to play the piano in my parents’ living room, quite another to play it in front of an auditorium full of people. And it was one thing to have a sleepover at a best friend’s house, but to bunk in a cabin in the woods with girls I hardly knew? Now that was scary.
But as I grew older, I slowly began testing my own limits, learned to say “yes” to crazy, nerve-wracking things like singing the “Star Spangled Banner” at the opening of every high school basketball game and leading discussions on comparative religion in the college Humanities classes I started teaching at age 23, finding myself, on many occasions, younger than my students.
These small dares led to ever bigger ones because I had begun to discover that saying “yes” to things that terrified me taught me, little by little, to push through fear. And the amazing thing about fear is that once you push through it, it disappears. You’re not only never afraid of that particular thing again, you find yourself a little less afraid of the next scary thing because you’ve proved, after all, you can handle fear.
By the time I was in my mid-twenties, my fear management had grown to a whole new level. I was willing to drop a full-time, good-paying job at an ad agency, give up my penthouse apartment, and take a wild risk becoming a freelance writer in the isolated mountain reaches of western Virginia. Everyone, except my dad, told me I had lost my mind, and even my dad admitted, years later, that he thought I had lost my mind, too, but was smart enough to keep his mouth shut.
A lot of people will chastise themselves, when they are young anyway, for taking a risk and falling flat on their faces. After all, it’s pretty darn embarrassing when a girl turns down your request for a dance, so why on earth would you ever risk yourself by asking a woman to marry you? You see how this reasoning against risk-taking can get out of hand. Pretty soon, you’ll be avoiding everything that makes life worth living.
Consider instead, if you’re feeling a little fearful, of twisting your thinking. Learn to regret the risk not taken, and pretty soon it will become habit to put yourself out there. So strong a habit, in fact, that you’ll kick yourself until you’re black and blue every time you fail to take an opportunity and see where it leads.
I’m still beating up on myself for failing to get the business card of a Belgian businessman I met on an airplane a couple of weeks ago who sought me out because he wanted to talk to an American who could speak French. I was afraid he might think I was hitting on him. When I told my husband about this failure on my part later, he said, ironically enough, after I had described the gentleman, “I bet he’s in the diamond trade. You could have had a new client. You’re an idiot.”
Hmmm. I thought so, too.
I should have just flung myself blindly into the possible opportunity. But then, I don’t really see staying open to possibilities as a blind leap of faith. Rather, it is a calculated sense of foresight. Life is too short for giving into fear. Sure, you might embarrass yourself, offend someone, maybe even lose your shirt (metaphorically speaking). But that’s the beauty of risk…and of life. You really, truly never know what’s around that next corner. And if you operate from a place of opportunity instead of a place of fear, chances are whatever is around the bend is pretty darn grand.