Saturday, March 21, 2009

Divesting Fear

I have written this three times now, yet none are really to my satisfaction. But, in the advent of time, and for lack of a better way to say things at the moment, this will have to suffice. I apologize for its low quality.

Almost every time somebody sees my motorcycle and we end up chatting about it, he or she looks distant for a moment, and returns with, “I really want to have a motorcycle some day.” Naturally, I encourage them to go for it. Take riding classes; see if you like it. “Oh no, I’m too scared I’ll tip it over. I might wreck or something.” As quickly as they were excited about it, they dismiss it as too dangerous, too risky, and a greater investment of time and energy than they are willing to make. It was a dream, but they squelched it on account of its danger and impracticality. There are many other examples.

I know a number of people who will never leave the country because they’re afraid of being in a situation surrounded by non-English speakers where they don’t know what to do. “What if I get lost?” they insist. A few won’t venture outside of cell phone range. “What if something happens and I need to call 911?” Others presume a relationship will end quickly and poorly, so never open their hearts to the opportunity. They accept superficiality over the clear risks of deep honesty. For a number, their fears manifest instead as zealotry regarding less-than-critical matters: avidly locking a deadbolt the moment a door is closed, drinking water from glass bottles instead of plastic because the plastic might leech a few chemicals into the water, drinking diet sodas because they fear an instant and irreversible case of diabetes with a non-diet soda. The list goes on and on, but the gist is that though we may not know it, we radically adjust our lives, daily activities, and even our dreams to accommodate our fears. The results are tragic.

Due in no small part to the efforts of our founding fathers and the continued sacrifices of our youth to the cause of freedom, the United States remains a relatively safe place to live and a ground fertile with opportunity. Few, however, seem to pursue it. Sadly, the absence of REAL fear (like that of oppression, persecution, wrongful imprisonment, etc) permits us to fixate on minutiae in an attempt to prolong our short lives – if only for a few moments. I would ask if it is worth the effort.

Living a safe life does, in all fairness, increase the likelihood of it being a long one. Yet those who avoid risks out of fear will reflect on a long, yet bland existence. A large part of a rewarding life is looking back with a sense of accomplishment in having tried. Whether or not the attempt amounted to much is almost immaterial. There is merit in trying. Those that never try will carry to their graves a gnawing regret for never pursuing any of the dreams of their youth. “It’s too dangerous,” they say, and extinguish their adventuresome sprit to follow a safer path. But a safer path is, for the most part, boring.

And in the end, none of us can cheat death. Perhaps by safe living we can wring a few more moments out of life, but they will be unrewarding, since our efforts were intended more for self preservation and the extension of life itself than living an adventure and ENJOYING whatever life we are given.

We have a terrible fascination with control, really, and go to great lengths to ensure it. Yet it remains a fa├žade. There are incredible risks to almost everything we do. Every time we hop in a car we’re putting our lives in the hands of hundreds of other drivers who may be busy applying makeup, text messaging, or perhaps drunk or even asleep. We cannot control them at all, yet feel somehow safe in our little airbag-lined, four-wheeled boxes. We ignore the fact that tens of thousands die on the roads each year. 2006 claimed the lives of more than 43,000 Americans. But we feel safe, buckle our seatbelts, and head out anyway. We are never particularly safe.

Even now, there are things of which I am fearful, yet they are often the very things I wish most intensely to pursue. I am left with a decision. I may take either the safe route and regret to my dying day never having tried, or I may venture out, take the risk, and find either success or failure. Trouble is, I don’t know until I try. Many are content to dismiss the notion altogether, but I don’t want to. I want to dive in.

I don’t wish to trivialize life to the constant avoidance of things that frighten us. Eleanor Roosevelt said that we should do one thing each day that scares us, and perhaps she is right; I am saying that we should not permit our lives to be dictated by terror of the unknown. Personally, I am more fearful of having regrets for a life I never lived. Many of those who never smoked will still get cancer, after all, and those that never drank may still be run over by a drunk driver. We mitigate risks, certainly, but then we must take a few of them.

I make no profession of great boldness. In fact, it took me a full 29 years to work up the nerve to learn how to dance, and I still undoubtedly look like a fool. But, I’m pleased that I have tried. Many will not. I may still get plowed over by a semi when I’m on my motorcycle, but I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent on it. I didn’t particularly enjoy having a passport stolen in Mexico City and having to get some emergency paperwork from the US embassy, but I still had a great time while I was down there. Things are going to happen. Sometimes they won’t be fun.

But which is a stronger sensation? Fear of things, failure, defeat, so simply waving the flag of surrender before the battle has even begun? Or trying, having a few successes and a few failures, yet learning a lot from each? I will choose the latter. It may kill me yet, but better that than never leave the comfort of my secure, self-imposed prison.

We will all end up in a coffin at the bottom of a hole. Nobody averts it. If I choose, I can dig my grave, carefully even the sides and groom it to perfection. Yet when I’m done, and thoroughly exhausted with my meticulous efforts, I’ll just sit down in it and die of nothing. Perish the thought. Instead, I’m going to dance around that grave gleefully, and sometime, on a day I do not know, I will fall in and that’ll be end of it. And I am confident of one thing: my tombstone will not say, “He was afraid to try.”

Having a fairly secure country, none of us know real fear. In its absence, we have created little things to occupy us. They give us something to avoid. We feel empowered by our careful decision-making and avoidance of danger. We take marginal self satisfaction in cheating an early death, yet it still comes to us all.

Don Quixote, considered a fool by all his peers, left his castle to fight windmills wearing a soup tureen for a helmet and carrying a stick for a sword. We laugh at his foolishness, wonder at his application of nobility to the most mundane of experiences, yet we do so from the safety of our castles. We watch from the windows. But when we are old, where will we find our deepest content? Accomplishments? Only a few amount to much. Knowledge? But used to what end? Money? We can’t take it with us. These all crumble to dust, since they speak so little about our character. We may derive great pleasure in the relationships we have had, but even they require a bravery only few possess. Will we have stories? Not if we invested our time skirting things that challenged us. Our deepest satisfaction will be our willingness to leave the castle. If we try, we may indeed fail, but we will have the contentment of having tried. Better this than spend the last years of our lives wondering if we could have done something. We don’t know until we try.

But in truth, failure is not defeat. It is merely the potential outcome of trying. And I much prefer it to “he was afraid to try.” For I remain much more fearful of regret than the temporary discomfort of not knowing or controlling the future. Boldness in no way guarantees success. It only provides the satisfaction of knowing that we tried. I’ll take it, however. It’s better than being petrified by fear.

So go ahead. Buy that motorcycle. Try that relationship. Pursue a passion or follow a dream. None of us truly knows if there’s water in the pool, but I’m jumping in anyway. I’m just wearing a helmet as I dive.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

-Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. I once lived across the street from a woman who wouldn't let her kids play in the yard, because she was afraid someone would grab them. I told her not to worry. If someone took them, they would drive around the block and drop them off again. I don't know that she ever spoke to me again. My Bassett hound was better behaved than those kids.

  2. Again, you have triumphed with an interesting perspective, one with which I wholeheartedly agree.

    Keep it up.

  3. My grandmother used to carry her purse to work with bricks in it, "just in case". She was so afraid of being mugged on the subway she let it consume her life.
    One time a friend gave me a can of mace to carry on my way home from work through a dark park. I carried it once and then threw it away. Carrying that can gave me a reason to be afraid, what if I actually had to use it??? I now live my life knowing that at any moment I could be mugged, walk through the line of fire, fall off a cliff, get run over by a car... Not that I won't try to avoid these incidents, but I WILL not let these thoughts ruin any fun I may have along the road to heaven! does this in any way correlate to the contents of this post? I think it does....

  4. True, true. What is the point of living if you are not going live...

  5. Ok Benjamin; so, should I just go ahead and do my tour of the Mexican countryside anyway, even if I don't have a bodyguard? The ironic thing is that this travel wish does not instill fear in me whatsoever, but everyone else is suggesting that I be accompanied by a respectable, preferably Spanish-speaking male. That means I will never go.