When I was a child, I devoured books about strong girls. Old fashioned novels about girls who lived in the woods, and who loved life with this big, abundant abandon. Girls who faced the worst life would give and rose, who were willing to be brave and unapologetically smart. I read Gone with the Wind for the first time when I was ten, and I revered Scarlett O’Hara in all her petty meanness and selfish immaturity — here was a woman bent on survival.
I consumed stories about fearless women, because I imagined that someday, I would grow into a fearless woman. This word — for me, it was a world unto itself.
I think as a kid, I spent more time thinking about my identity than I did trying to create — or at least project — it. Because of that, there were a few individual words — fearlessness among them — that became so big, so prominent in my mental geography. I was this, or at least I would be, when I grew up.
There are a few moments from my life that stand as highway marker, and this is one: In the middle of my freshman year of college mental health crisis, I got lost on a city bus. I misread the schedule or misread the bus — I’m still not sure which — but I wound up getting deposited at an empty transit station, in the wrong downtown, on a street that I did not recognize.
I was terrified.
And not because I didn’t know where I was. This was only six years ago — I had a cell phone with a GPS, and access to both the city wide bus schedule, and people with cars would could come pick me up.
I collapsed in an empty hallway, on a carpet with green and gray squares, and I began to weep. I was so, desperately afraid of absolutely everything. The life I’d been dreaming of since I was a little kid was far, far too big for me, and I was only at the beginning. I was staring down the barrel of my adulthood, and I knew deep in my bones that I was not fearless. I was fear. Without realizing what I was doing, I had accumulated and indexed fears until I was a walking atlas of them.
I was afraid: that my parents would be killed in a car crash, that someone in the transit station would approach me with a question, that I would be invited to a social event and not know what to do, AND that there would be a social gathering and I would not be invited, that my brother would be killed by a shooter at his high school, and that I would never make any friends. I was afraid that I would never write again. I was afraid of my dormitory hallways, and especially afraid of the cafeterias, and afraid of how lonely I was, and afraid of how difficult it was to make friends. I even remember lying awake one night and worrying that I would never have friend with whom I was close enough to fear that someday they too may die a painful and untimely death. (Crazy, I know).
I was a whole landscape of fear, a country of worry held together only by very fragile bones.
In the months following that breakdown, I had to deal very seriously with my identity. It is truly the only time in my life when I felt utterly lost from myself, and at odds with who I thought I’d been. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t “fearless,” because although I was not, my identity was unstable at a much more fundamental level. I did, however, have to confront the magnitude of my fears.
Ongoing treatment and care for my anxiety has significantly lessened the weight of fear in my life, and the strength of my fears have lessened — less “what is my momdies in a car accident?” and more “how would I afford a car payment if my transition drops out.” But they are still very, very much with me.
I used to think that I was letting down the young version of myself who thought that strength would be measured, like it was for my heroines, by how little I feared. But here’s the thing. I’ve reread most of my favorite books from my childhood, and I don’t see fearless women anymore. I see fear. These stories are shaped by fear! They’re only compelling because of the fear. Because it’s not a lack of fear that makes Anne beg Matthew and Marilla to keep her, or that makes Hermione brave enough to partner with Harry, or that gives Eowyn the strength to pull off her helmet and look evil in the eye. It’s the decision to act in spite of the fear.
Every single character that I ever adored all had a set of fears unique to themselves, and every single one of them saw their fear, their worst fears, running after them, and not a single one of them ducked. That’s why I loved them. That’s why I wanted to be them.
Fearlessness is not the goal. For me, fear is a companion that I didn’t invite into my house, but that is here, because sometimes it keeps me alive. Maybe it will change, but I doubt it — I’m predisposed to panic, and my craft is my overactive imagination. At this point, fear is in the house, and I can’t make it leave.
I can, however, make it sit in the corner, in the uncomfortable chair, facing the wall. I can tell it to shut up when it starts to drown out the guests that I actually invited over. When it convinces me that the phone only rings when someone dies, or that I can’t take down my Christmas tree, because my dad cut it down, and what if my dad dies before he can down a new tree for me, then I’ll send it to a different room, and make it stare at a blank wall in there.
Giving fear power in the moments when it doesn’t have a valid claim only makes the moments when fear is real, and when it is warranted that much harder. Because fear comes when what we love is threatened. And if we’re being honest, life does not promise to protect that which we life.
One of the very few things we’re promised is suffering. Life will hurt badly. As a friend reminded me after my grandfather died, what I was feeling just then was the result of the very best that life can give — 86 years lived, 64 years married, 6 children grown, 14 grandchildren, 5 great-grandchildren. That’s the best, and that aches.
We’ve all read this before: If we live long enough, everyone we’ve ever loved will die, and if we don’t, we’ll leave behind people in pain.
Fear cannot change the facts. It will only make it harder to live with them. This is a hard truth to hold in your hand — I believe it maybe 2 out of every 50 days, and I act out of that belief only 1. Fear is powerful and seductive, and it is almost all empty promises, broken cisterns that leak water when you’re most in need.
Life comes after us, whether we want it to or not. And all my fearing, all my empty worrying, my obsessive indexing of catastrophe, has not prepared me for what happens when the thing I’ve feared becomes the thing that’s real, and takes its own seat at the table.