I’m beginning to notice that Fear is a common thread in my writing. This isn’t because I feel I’m somehow above it… rather, it’s because I contend with it everyday. Addressing it directly is how I fight it and reading my own writing has revealed to me just how often Fear and I come to blows.
I’ve only just now realized my perception of fear might be a bit strange. When I think of Fear, I see a dark figure – featureless, faceless. But still it manages to communicate its standoffishness. It reminds me of Peter Pan and his shadow: separate but the same, apart but undivided. But my dark shadow isn’t friendly… and certainly not as rambunctious. It stalks my every step and darkens all that it glides across.
I hadn’t realized how anthropomorphic my perception of fear had become until writing this.
So today, I want to explore Fear from a different perspective. I want to put aside this dualistic view I’ve constructed and try to remember that Fear is a part of me. It originates from me… it presents itself within me… it is within me that I experience it. Fear is just one of my faces.
Accepting this gives me an added power over it. Instead of constantly having to battle with it, I can turn my back on it. How?
You can either live reactively or proactively.
If you’re living reactively, you’re only ever responding. You receive a stimulus… you react. Another stimulus… another reaction. You aren’t really in control – it’s the stimulus that’s in control; it’s the one that determines what you do.
This is a part of our nature. The fight-or-flight response is deeply engrained and way past the bounds of conscious control. And our fear response – pupils dilated, heart and respiratory rates increased, blood redirected toward the muscles – that is best for these situation because it puts us on the defensive. It makes us ready to react. So living reactively is really embracing fear and telling it to take the reins.
But, you can also live proactively. You can be the stimulus to which you react. This puts you in the driver’s seat, this gives you some amount of control over your situation. From this side of living, it’s hard to be fearful… it’s hard for the fight-or-flight response to take over… that is not the reaction your body has to itself. When you live proactively, you put fear aside.
I’m not saying you can have complete control. But I think you can get a handle on your fear… just enough of a grip to not let it control you. You just need to be proactive.
I originally wrote the letter below for a friend graduating from high school, but after revisiting it several time over the past year, I’ve begun to wonder if I didn’t actually write it to myself. So here it is, after a few minor changes, just for you. Please keep a copy for yourself and revisit it as often as you like…I do.
There is so much I want to say, but frankly, there are not enough pages to hold the words I would give to you if I could. I’m not much of a gift giver, or receiver for that matter; I think that’s just because I value something different from most people. So this letter is your gift–it is an attempt to give you a taste of what I value, something I hope you’ll be able to understand and that will remain timeless.
When I sat down to write this, I thought I might write about my own experiences, about the lessons I’ve learned, what I might tell my younger self. During that reflection though, I realized how important those experiences are to me, how important they were to my growth and development as a person. So instead of writing some crappy lecture on life, I’m going to trust you to figure out that stuff on your own. Humans have the capacity to learn from the successes and failures of others, but that doesn’t mean we should give up first hand experience. We can only experience our own lives, so go out and take risks, make mistakes, do something you might consider regrettable later. Live passionately.
My friend, it truly is incredible how many people not only let fear govern their lives, but also let it downplay their passions. But you have the gumption most people do not; please don’t lose it. It will become more valuable as you pursue your passions and inevitably meet the resistance of the doubters who will try to impose their own fear on you and on the way you lead your life.
I do not believe fear should be discounted. It is an important experience in itself, but not one that should influence your choices. Cliché? Yes. Easier said than done? Absolutely. So let me get to your “gift” which is nothing more than a simple idea.
Time is a misconception. Neither past nor future actually exist. The past is just a collection of memories which you experience in the present and the future is nothing more than a present daydream hiding in the empty spaces of your consciousness. This means there is only one moment that exists, the only moment you ever live: the present moment. Keep this in mind when you think about what you want from life, because now is the only chance you will ever have to achieve those goals. Now is the only chance you have to define yourself as a child, parent, sibling; as a friend and teammate; as a student and teacher; as a partner and as a lover. Never let a chance to define yourself pass.
And fear? Well, we are creatures of habit. We tend to stick with a decision once we have made up our mind (even if it’s a bad decision). So, when faced with terror that stands between you and your passion, realize it only takes a split second’s worth of courage to decide you are going to stand up to that terror. Facing fear head on is not nearly as difficult as deciding to do so. Remember, now is the only chance you have to define yourself.
I hope this bit of philosophy isn’t too much for you, Friend, but I hope you hold onto this letter and glance back at it every now and then, if for nothing else, as validation of your potential, of which you have an abundance. So surround yourself with like-minded people, read inspirational quotes and anecdotes every chance you get, and remember that what you see is not necessarily as important as how you see it. The way in which you view the world will determine how you live your life.
Now let me close with one of my favorite quotes: “life begins where you comfort zone ends.” Always explore and remember that mistakes are inevitable, as are regrets. But it is better to regret something you did than something you did not do and when you do err, it may as well be on the side of passion. Welcome to the rest of your life.
Claire’s heels clicked away as her foot tapped to imaginary music – it was how she entertained herself when she was made to wait. The incessant clack of her black heels on the cold marble echoed down a dim hall and toward the sunlight that flooded the far end. The halo made it hard for her to see the glares thrown at her by that beast of a man wrapped up in a black suit, wearing his ear piece as a badge of honor.
“Excuse me, sir,” she asked the man, but he held still, staring forward at the opposite wall. “What, you can’t hear my voice? Just my shoes?”
“What is it?” He added as an afterthought, “Ma’am.”
“Well, I’m just wondering how much longer he’s going to be. This interview has been pushed back repeatedly and each time we set a date and time, there’s always another stipulation added on. Is this thing going to happen, or is he just giving me the run around?”
Claire almost heard his thick neck creak as he turned to sneer at her. “Well if you’re so tired of waiting, I suggest you find another story.” His lips spread thin and wide across his face – a half concealed smile? Did he really think he was that witty.
“Oh, don’t you worry. The story I’m going to write will be about your dear senator regardless of whether I get this interview.” His half-smile persisted as he turned to face the blank wall again. Such a stupid look – need to wipe it off his face. “I guess I’ll just have to make up some of the more juicy bits.”
That took care of his face.
He turned back to look at her. “You media people think you’re so funny, don’t you?” There was a fierceness in his eyes, like you’d see in a rabid dog. “Well go ahead and write whatever you want. We both know you’d lose your job over whatever libelous crap you’d cook up.”
Claire was sitting on an old wooden bench, probably older than her. These old government buildings were always filled with this old crap. Not a modern thing in them – people included. The bench groaned as she leaned back and raised her chin toward the man.
“‘Libelous.’ That’s a big word.” The suited hulk heaved as he tried not to chuckle, that half-wit smile back. Time to let her own dog out of the cage. “You must’ve learned it on your word-a-day calendar, huh?” His face fell to a scowl. “I’ve got another one you can look up. ‘Subtext.'” His eye contact was unwavering, eyes unblinking. “You can give me all the facts you want –,” Claire leaned forward, holding his gaze, voice lowered, “– I can still spin them any way I want.”
Someone passed through the light at the end of the hall. The strange arrangement of light and shadow reflected down the hall played a strange game on the man’s face. Claire tracked the light as it moved across the far side of his face, then somehow, over the bridge of his nose and down his cheek. The light must have been reflecting off the wall Claire sat against. And just as the staring contest was getting heated, she found something more interesting and broke eye contact.
The man smirked at her – probably thought he had put the conflict to rest, had been the victor. But Claire knew better. She knew conflict was controlled by currency. And right now, she had all the gold.
The man looked back at the wall again, back straight, arms crossed. Sure enough, there it was, the reason Claire lost the stare-down. Peaking from just below the neatly pressed shirt collar was the edge of a bruise.
The silence was filled again with imaginary music. Claire’s heel resumed her time keeping…this song had a much faster tempo than the last.
“What’s your name?” Claire had always been good at playing with people, but it was something she tried not to do anymore. But she still indulged once in a while. “What? Can’t speak anymore.”
He threw her a dirty look. He still thought he had won the last battle. He didn’t want to engage her again in case he should lose.
The door opened. Claire leaned to see around the bodyguard and through the door on his far side. The corner of a cluttered desk was all she saw before a gray-suited man filled the doorway. He patted the hulk on the shoulder, sending a tremor through his ear piece. “We’ll see you next week, Carter.”
The door shut and the suit passed Claire, his white hair shining in the light as he walked toward the dark end of the hall.
She looked back. “Carter, huh?” He sighed in sync with the subtle shake of his head. “Well, Carter, since I’m here to do an interview, I’ll just interview you if that’s all right.” Claire pulled the small notepad and pen from her handbag. “So you spend a lot of time with the Senator, right?”
SIlence. Claire opened the notepad and began to scrawl across the page, the scratching of the pen its own metronome. “I see. So you and the Senator must be awfully close, right?”
Silence. Claire wrote and filled the paper. She turned the page so fast she threatened to tear it, searching for a blank one. “Two people who spend so much time together in such a stressful environment must have a very profound connection, huh?”
Silence. Still the pen scratches continued. “I only ask, Carter, because I’m wondering how that bruise got on your neck.”
He found her eyes. “What are you playing at?”
“Playing?” Claire brought her hand to her chest, pen still woven through her fingers. “I’m not playing at anything. I’m just getting my facts straight.”
She looked down and flipped back through her notebook. “Let’s see,” she paused and acted like she was scanning her notes. “Ah, here it is. So you, who your Senator’s cohort so lovingly refer to as Carter, cannot explain the mysterious origin of a mark on you neck, a mark most junior high students could guess the origin of. Instead, you play ignorant and claim that you spend all day with the Senator, pouring over his schedule, tracking his every move, longing for the chance to save his life. And the Senator’s long hours? They must get lonely sometimes. Doesn’t it seem likely you two would have a” –she broke eye contact with the page to look at Carter – “unique relationship?”
Carter’s jaw muscles flexed as the door opened again. The senator stepped through. His eyes found her. “Ah, Claire, isn’t it?” His arm motioned to the door. “Please, come in.”
She stood as the Senator disappeared into the office again.
Her heels rang out yet again as she strode the five paces to the door, scrawling again on a blank page in her notebook that she then ripped out. She paused in the frame, rose on her toes and whispered to Carter, “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.”
She slipped a piece of paper into his hand and stepped into the office. As she close the door behind her, Carter glanced at the paper. In the shrinking crack of the doorway, he turned to Claire, giving her devilish smile. Written on the paper: s-u-b-t-e-x-t.
My late mother made the greatest cookies. Sugar, peppermint bark, no-bake, chocolate chip–my cousin still claims her copy of that recipe is missing a secret ingredient (I have no idea what she’s talking about). My mom’s cookies were famous with the family; not just the immediate family, but the whole of our extended family.
My favorite by far were her Fudge Puddles–cookie dough baked with a deep depression into which a fudge filling was poured. Mmmm…delectable…
My brothers and I had an inside joke with our mom when it came to this particular cookie. We didn’t call them Fudge Puddles. Given the general shape and filling color, we lovingly referred to them as “shit in a bucket.” How the expression came to be, I don’t remember, but it’s hard to imagine those cookies being called anything other than “shit in a bucket.”
The reason I bring up the memory of my mom’s cookies is because I feel there is another bucket-concept that is infringing on the name of my favorite cookie…and that’s not cool.
Are you familiar with the expression “bucket list?”…I don’t doubt it. It has been famously portrayed through popular culture–there was even a movie…it was called The Bucket List.
In case you missed it, the concept is to keep a list of experiences you want to have before you kick the…well, you saw where that was headed. As you accomplish those goals, they get crossed off the list. This seems satisfying, upstanding, even ambitious, right?
Well, sorry pop culture…I disagree. You’re doing it wrong.
Imagine laying on your death bed, in some lonely hospital room, staring at the crumpled and faded piece of paper that you first transcribed your bucket list onto several years before. There are 20 items on the list and you have only managed to cross off 11. Well, damn–there are still 9 items you didn’t get to. That’s disappointing. As tears begin to well up, you ball the paper and toss it in the general direction of the garbage can. But don’t worry, because you’re empty bucket is there to catch the tears.
Is that really the way you would want to go out? Yeah, me neither.
So, I propose this list be restructured. Instead of being goal oriented, it should focus on achievement. In other words, don’t come up with some random list you are going to focus on for the whole of your life–improvise, add to the list as you go and only as you achieve.
This makes a lot more sense, for several reasons.
First, go back to that hospital room where your taking the last breaths of your life. You pull out the crumpled piece of paper and start to read through the entries. The degree of fading varies across the list and produces a gradient of ink intensity that demonstrates how items were added one at a time over the years. The gradient even holds true across the different colored inks the various entries have been written in. Smirking, you climb out of bed and take your bucket to the window…there you turn it over and stand on it to get a better view back over your life. Look at all you’ve done. There are some incredible items on that list, all of which bring a smile to your face, a joyful tear to your eye. Ahhh…what a life.
Now…which of the two death experiences described would you prefer? Yeah, me too.
Second, the updated concept of this list fosters spontaneity. The old version doesn’t necessarily hamper spontaneity, but it’s difficult to act on a whim if you’re too concerned about crossing off item #11. But when potentially anything can make the list, things remain a lot more interesting.
Third, people change. Yes, even you. As a twenty-something college graduate, you might want to walk down the Great Wall of China or learn a second language. As you progress into your thirties though, maybe an awesome entry for the list would be “start a family.” In you sixties your list might include buying an RV. Can you imagine a twenty-something globe trekker buying an RV? The updated concept not only allows, but embraces this change, this progression of perspective.
The fourth and final reason is what I consider to be the most important. You’ve got to have passion. It’s too easy to imagine doing something extraordinary and stop at putting it on a list. I wonder if, when you transfer that dream from your soul to that paper, you aren’t transferring some of your passion with it.
It’s easy to write a list and say I’ll get to it next year…I’ll get to it after I’ve accrued some vacation time…I’ll get to it after I get that promotion…I’ll get to it once I’ve retired…
…sure you will.
I completely believe that you’re not full of shit to the point that you’re overflowing with it and filling up your bucket.
When faced with a blank list though…with all your ambition and vigor bottled up…a bottle that’s shaken violently by the excitement and fervor of a long-held dream…the top is bound to pop…and the rush of emotions it brings will carry you forth toward that dream and that list entry.
So please, let’s revise our conception of the bucket list. Let’s tip our pails and dump out the shit we know we’ve been shoveling. Instead of writing a list that encourages complacency and stagnation, let’s work on one that will challenge us and encourage growth. Isn’t being challenged important? Isn’t personal growth important? Isn’t it important to be able, at any point in your life, to look back and feel satisfied?
But let’s not get sidetracked here…the most important reason to wipe our hands of the shit we’ve been shoveling into our bucket is too clear up this concept and return the untarnished status to the name of my mom’s cookies–”shit in a bucket.”