the art of being fearless

 

 

1

If you’ve ever been legally deposed, you know it’s a brutal experience. The night before I was deposed for the third time out of five in a case that stretched on – and on – for over two years, I was terrified. I was going head-to-head with one of the best lawyers in Los Angeles who seemed determined to trip me up, break me down, and make me cry (and then, afterwards, would be vaguely apologetic about it, in a “just doing my job” kind of way).

That night, everything about what I was going through seemed to gather up inside me and pitch me to the edge. I couldn’t sleep. I fretted and smoked. I might have cried. I am not proud.

And at some point, I gave in to the anxiety. I lay on my bed and let it shudder through me. It couldn’t last forever, I reasoned. Surely it would burn itself out?

The next morning, something interesting happened.

I was calm and hollowed-out. It was as if I had gone to this place beyond anxiety where I no longer gave a damn. (Later, I would learn to think of it as “the place beyond the ‘fuck it’”). I felt myself surrender to the moment with no sense of trying to control the outcome.

It was what it was.

The lawyer started in on me. I knew I was supposed to say as little as possible. You give the answer to the question and nothing more. This can be surprisingly difficult, especially when you’re nervous. We were ten minutes in and he was already accusing me of perjury. Then, when he was interrogating me on something I’d said in the transcript, I suddenly got it. It was as if a wind swept over me, shifting my perception.

This – this deposition – was a game of language. Every word was a chess piece. You move it to your advantage. It was about, as Bill Clinton did so famously, questioning what the definition of ‘is’ is. It was distasteful and even kind of stupid (depending on your definition of ‘stupid’) but once I saw the game, I saw how the lawyer was trying to play me, and I could defend myself. I gave clipped, minimal answers. Words turned into rocks that I tossed down one after another, as if using them to jump across a stream. When I got to the other side, and it was over, my own lawyer looked at me with something akin to amazement.

2

Fear can be your friend. It carries a message that you need to hear. It is a warning of something that hasn’t happened yet. I remember a passage from the book GIFT OF FEAR about a woman attacked in her apartment. She was on the bed, and her rapist was saying he was done with her, he was going to let her go. He shut the bedroom window and left the room. Fear seized her, and rose up inside her, lifting her body off the bed. Wearing only a sheet, she soundlessly followed her attacker through the apartment. He had no idea she was behind him. When he went into the kitchen, she went out the front door.

Later, she realized that the simple act of shutting a window had signaled to her unconscious his intention to kill her. He shut the window because he didn’t want anyone to hear her scream. He left the bedroom because he was looking for something to use as a weapon. Her fear connected the dots before her conscious mind was willing or able to; fear hijacked her body and quite literally saved her life.

3

Fear can also serve as a gatekeeper, like those statues of Chinese lion-dogs that flank temple doors. I am reminded of a dream I had in my early twenties. I was living inside a stone castle, dark and cold, but through an arched doorway I could see the world. It was sunlit and colorful and I wanted it. Shadowy figures patrolled the doorway, and I knew that I couldn’t get out into the world without figuring a way to slip past them.

But I also understood that those figures weren’t my enemies. They were – or thought they were – keeping me safe. Passing through that threshold would be a profound act; it would change me; it would cast me beyond the edge of my known territory. Those gatekeepers were a test of my will: did I want it bad enough? If not – or if I tried to make my way past them and failed – then I should go after something else, something that truly motivated me.

Or else I wasn’t ready yet, hadn’t acquired the skillset or maturity that I needed, and should try again another time.

4

Ultimately, what we fear is death. It could be literal but it could also be symbolic: professional or psychological death through exposure and humiliation, for example. We fear being shown up as inadequate. Or maybe we fear the opposite – that we are more powerful than we know, which carries its own burden of risk and responsibility.

So we find hundreds of ways to distract ourselves. As Pema Chodron puts it:

“…we always have to change the channel, change the temperature, change the music, because something is getting uneasy, something is getting restless, something is beginning to hurt, and we keep looking for alternatives.”

We make excuses. We procrastinate. We look for ways to escape the moment.

But what if – instead of leaping to change the channel, or smoke a cigarette, or shop at Saks, or zone out in front of the television – what if instead of that kneejerk search for distraction, we hold ourselves still? What if we allow ourselves to feel whatever feeling we are trying to suppress? What if, instead of running, we stop and turn to look on that fear directly? To identify and name it?

The act of naming a thing is an act of power over it; through naming, we assert control and ownership.

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The ironic thing is that confronting death …can actually make us happier. As Jane McGonigal points out in her book Reality is Broken, positive psychology manuals will advise us to

Think about death for five minutes every day. Researchers suggest that we can induce a mellow, grateful physiological state known as “posttraumatic bliss” that helps us appreciate the present moment and savor our lives more.

The prospect of death, our own death, has a way of stripping away the excess, the small things, the bullshit, so that we can suddenly see what’s important to us. When I find myself in need of clarity, asking myself – What would I do if I knew I was going to die six months from now? – can serve up that clarity pretty quick.

Facing our fears has a way of changing them into something that serves us. In his book BUILT TO LAST, Jim Collins observes that the leaders of remarkable breakthrough companies aren’t fearless risk-takers – but fearful and paranoid even in the best of times. (In the words of Andrew Grove: “Only the paranoid survive.”). They assume that disaster is around the corner – and then prepare accordingly. They don’t conquer their fears so much as acquire the skills and resources needed to live peacefully alongside them. The thought of approaching disaster doesn’t scare you quite so much when you’re ready to meet it with a force of your own.

In those instances when the fear doesn’t serve us, we can acknowledge it for what it is. We can listen to it, and respect it, and get unnerved by it. We might even be convinced by it.

But we don’t have to do what it says.

We can learn how to act in the face of it. We can practice this through allowing ourselves to be uncomfortable: experimenting with small actions that fall outside our comfort zone, retreating to the comfort zone to rest and regroup, stepping outside of it again. If writing the novel frightens us, we sit down and type a paragraph. Or a sentence. Or even a word. But we do that day after day after day until the act of feeling that discomfort, moving through that discomfort, becomes a habit that carries over into other areas of our lives.

6

Pema Chodron says: No one ever tells us to stop running away from fear. We are very rarely told to move closer, to just be there, to become familiar with fear.

…Usually we think that brave people have no fear. The truth is that they are intimate with fear…

The trick is to keep exploring and not bail out, even when we find out that something is not what we thought. That’s what we’re going to discover again and again and again. Nothing is what we thought.

I like that phrase: “intimate with fear”.

That night before the deposition, I became intimate with mine. There was no escape, no chance of distraction. I was pinned to the truth of the moment. And I learned that my fear was me and not-me, it had its own life as something apart from me. It was a squall of bad weather moving through me. I let myself feel it, and then let it go.

I came out the other side of that deposition with a new sense of my capability and resilience. I was more of a badass than I’d realized. Now, I’m glad to have had that experience (and the gifts it gave me), just like every other event that has broken me open in some way, made me deeper and wiser — even if I’d rather stick needles in my eyes than go through it again.

There are a lot of things I want to do with what remains of my “one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver puts it. Thinking of some of them scares me to death. I don’t expect that anxiety to ever truly subside. Your fear points you to the things you care about so intensely, you think you’ll be shattered if you lose them or can’t have them. Your fear leads you to whatever lesson you still need to learn, to become the kind of person living the life that you want to live.

More than one successful blogger has said that he or she uses fear as a litmus test for posts: if she feels an edge of anxiety, vulnerability, when pressing ‘publish’, she takes that as a sign that she has brought all of herself to her work. She has pushed herself (and her audience) someplace new.

It’s an illusion that we can conquer our fears and then be done with them, as if passing some final exam. Things fall apart and come together and fall apart and come together. Then they fall apart again. We reach our limit and break new ground…and find ourselves once more at our ragged edge, with change and ambiguity and uncertainty ahead. We’re passing through a threshold that will change us; something in our old identity must die so something new can take its place.

Pema says:

Reaching our limit is not some kind of punishment. It’s actually a sign of health that, when we meet the place where we are about to die, we feel fear and trembling. A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.

I took a rock climbing lesson once. It turns out I have a fear of heights. I never went back – the idea of climbing mountains for no reason isn’t something that motivates me – but I remember my takeaway from that day: how even though my legs were shaking, I could still pull myself up the rock.

Mar 4, 2012
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28 comments · Add Yours

Holy fucking shit – everything in this post. All of the themes.

I had the same dream, in my early twenties. I’ve thought of it a lot lately … except mine was like a tribe of elders, all in some weird new shiny tower. I wanted so badly to go up with them, but wasn’t allowed. I knew I wasn’t allowed because I hadn’t learnt my lessons yet. I then went on to learn what pain, alcoholism, drug addiction, hopelessness can do to the human spirit.

Justine I don’t know how I found you, or how you keep saying shit that I feel and know. But thank you so much.

You are a powerful and extraordinary woman.

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“our fear leads you toward the things you care about so intensely, you think you’ll be shattered if you lose them or can’t have them. Your fear leads you into whatever lesson you need to learn, in order to become the kind of person who can live the life that you want to live.”
That resonates with me very powerfully. I have a few fears like that. I haven’t yet overcome them all. One thing I learned is to sit with my fear when it comes up. If I keep sitting with it, eventually I’ll reach a tipping point, where that fear no longer holds power over me. It doesn’t mean the fear disappears, but that I have absorbed its lesson, and I’m ready to face it. Head on.
Amazing post. Thanks.

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It’s funny how most of your posts end up being what I have been mind swirling just before I come to your site for my fix. Fear has been a big one for me lately and I was thinking on it as an adviser… This post fully captured what I had been thinking about and served as an “omen” for me to stop running away and start running towards it. Thank you for your fearless vision and beautiful eloquence.

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I was at a piano competition once to support a friend. We were around sixteen at the time and the director came on stage and said spoke about fear. I suspect someone preformed badly because they had anxiety about the whole performance issue. Anyway the person said, as “performers you will always have fear; don’t worry about getting over fear. Instead, your goal is become comfortable with the fear.”

Besides telling myself that, I also tell myself that few choices are irrevocable.

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This resonates so much with me — firstly because I have seen death first hand and it has transformed me into someone who squeezes the life out of each and ever moment; and secondly I’ve been abseiling and experienced the same crippling fear and did it any way.

I love your thoughts and your writing. I’m taking away the idea that if I don’t “feel an edge of anxiety, vulnerability, when pressing ‘publish’” then I’m playing safe.
Thank you x

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fear is an important part of life, it can hold us back or it can propel us though life, it is all how you choose to deal with it.
My first professional writing submission scared the living hell out of me (to the point my heart was pounding when I hit send) I wasn’t scared writing the piece, but actually sending it in for someone else to read, critique and ultimately make a decision if it was good enough to land the job.
Turns out it was not good enough to land the job, but it taught me a valuable lesson, step out, take the chance, so what if it doesn’t work out, it may never work out.
Then again it just may!!!

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About a year ago (last February, 2011), I took a vacation, to get away from the cold Canadian winter, to Argentina. I felt I really needed this vacation, for the past year and a half I no longer felt a value at my job. I no longer felt I was contributing anything to others. I knew what I wanted to do, what I had to do to get there…I was terrified!
I went on a trekking trip in the mountains of Mendoza, not knowing what I would come up against. Half way through, I thought I was going to die! I was standing alongside a 30 feet chute! I did not want to continue, I even thought about asking the guide to have someone come get my by helicopter…the only way out was to keep going…I looked ahead at my 17 year old niece, she looked so peaceful, admiring the view…she turned to me and asked,”are you ready to continue, I can’t wait to get to the top!” At that moment, I realized that my thoughts about all the things that could go wrong and focusing on falling is what was keeping me from going forward. I looked around me, I was so taken in by the scenery, now, I too wanted to get to the top. I did not completely let go of my fear, but, this time, there was an excitement, I had to be creative with every step I took…my fear was now feeding me to keep going…

That day has become very meaningful to me! When I got back home, my first day back at work, everything just fell into place. My thoughts of what could happen if I quit my job is what had prevented me from moving forward (just like that day in the mountains)…This time, my fear was feeding. I felt a presence, a strength telling me it was time to move, climb to the top of that mountain. Well, not only did I quit my job, I sold everything, house, car, furniture…and am now back in traveling across South America, working on my book! Let me tell, it is still scary sometimes, but, like you have so magically described in this post, Justine, that anxiety gives me the courage and strength to keep going! Thank You!!!!

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Thank you so much for this post. I am particularly ruminating on “post-traumatic bliss.” I hit pause on a DVD in my laptop about twenty minutes ago, a documentary I bought for me and my parents and my middle sister called, “The Gifts of Grief,” hoping it would help me/us find some measure of ease around my baby sister’s impending death from cancer. In those twenty minutes I’ve been leaping around the internet, looking out the windows, avoiding that “intimacy with fear” Pema writes about. I know I can’t get to the bliss until I go through the trauma, but I, all of us, actually, have a hard time facing it some days. Even though I used reading your piece as part of that distraction, I do think you told me some essential things I really need to hear, for which I’m deeply grateful. And now, out for a walk in the woods and then home again, to face that documentary, and death, head-on, feeling more courageous and more of a bad-ass thanks to having read you. With love, Ariane

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I love this post so much. Cancer. Joblessness. Betrayal. Divorce. The hits have come in great, devastating waves for the past several years, the never ending pressure and drag grinding me into pulp. I had no choice but to let life go altogether, or create a new definition of my life.
Part of this new life was recognizing both Fear and Faith as my constant companions. Fear keeps a death grip on my left hand while Faith’s fingers are loosely threaded through my right. I brush shoulders with each as I go through my day, and each has something to say, in a whisper, banshee-scream, or simply a chat about nothing in particular.
I love them. I hate them. I need them both to survive, and to surmount mere survival. I’ve learned to recognize their unique voices, but I’ve yet to master an understanding.
This says it all for me: “Things fall apart and come together and fall apart and come together. Then they fall apart again. We reach our limit and break new ground…and find ourselves once more at our ragged edge, with change and ambiguity and uncertainty ahead. We’re passing through a threshold that will change us; something in our old identity must die so something new can take its place.”
Thank you for sharing this….

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Justine — excellent post! I read deBeckers’ book over 10 years ago and resonated with it. Just a thought: have you ever considered that your stone castle with the bright sun, etc. just beyond the walls was a pre-birth experience?

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Thanks for sharing the insights and experiences you’ve gleaned from facing your fears, and for integrating insights and experiences shared by others. One of the most inspiring and useful approaches I’ve found to dealing with fear is in Susan Jeffer’s book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, where she notes that fear is a natural reaction to novelty, and the goal is not to eradicate the fear (or to be fearless), but to accept the fear and work through it on the way toward achieving our goals … much as you have described here.

In reading the section describing Jane McGonigal’s approach to contemplating death daily, I was reminded of a particularly nefarious aspect of fear avoidance known as terror management theory. In an excellent article on The Death Grip in The New Republic a few years ago, John Judis reports on research suggesting that right wing conservatives have used language designed to unconsciously remind us of our mortality, and thereby “trigger a range of emotions–from disdain for other races, religions, and nations, to a preference for charismatic over pragmatic leaders, to a heightened attraction to traditional mores.” So perhaps building more resilience in facing fear will have significant political as well as personal benefits.

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so glad I was directed here by a link. sometimes you get a message just when you need it and here it was for me. the story of the girl who saved herself after a rape, heeding that inner voice, listening, acting.

you write with such an active voice, it keeps the reader moving right on through. thank you.

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Good post. I wish more blogs were as outward-directed. Unfortunately, nothing I ever read about creative terror prevents it from nearly overwhelming me almost every time I sit down to write. On some days, the fear wins. On others, the only pseudo-mantra that gets me in the chair is, ‘Not writing is harder [on me, on those around me, and possibly on Creation] than writing.’ Having written, I almost always wonder why I was fearful in the first place. That feeling may last a couple of hours. Overnight, fear regroups. Like a lot of bullies, however, it retreats in the face of a little courage, and ultimately comes from a place in oneself that deserves, like a lot of bullies, sympathy.

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Ariane, I’m so sorry to hear of your sister. All blessings to you and your family.

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Well, Ms. Musk, you’ve done it again. I have to stop reading your blog, I guess. Too much shit gets kicked up.

With the help of therapists and 12 step programs and dozens of books, I’ve come to understand why I am who I am. The difficulty I have is taking consistent action (and action can in this case include ‘thinking’) to stop doing the things I do, but no longer help me, because of who I am. Focus, awareness and concentration are all difficult for me, which makes it all the easier to slip into the behaviors/thoughts that distract me from my fear, most often without me even realizing it. All my life, I’ve never truly been myself because of my inability to let go of the self-destructive thoughts and actions that limit me.

Now I’m 53. I had cancer last year (I refuse to call it a ’bout’, as that indicates it was some noble battle in which I kicked cancer’s ass; the cancer was cut out of me, I just had to lay there and be sedated). I thought that would be enough to finally wake me up, but it wasn’t. I looked at life differently for about a week after the initial diagnosis, but then went back to, and remain in, my muddled struggle to make my life my own.

Occasionally I get little jolts, like this post. Thanks. I need as many jolts as I can get.

I’m not a whining victim here. I know the changes are up to me. It just amazes me that fear instilled in me earlier than I could walk is still with me in mid-life. It’s tenacious, and I’m grateful I’ve never wholly given up.

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Outstanding and provocative post. Fear permeates every pore in me and it shows in my writing and makes me say things I didn’t intend to say or mean things I didn’t mean. Killing my fear is my goal. The instrument of death? Patience? Perseverance? Self-Love? Self-Acceptance, I think, above all is what will kill fear that lives in the homes that is our souls. Thanks for the great post:)

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This is great – I very much need to get to grips with fear right now and this post gives a lot of assurance how to reach beyond immediate anxiety.
In a sense I feel almost fraudulent as the fear I’m feeling is of a situation wholly of my own making. A while ago cuts were coming around at work and I was asked if I wanted to take layoff from the day job. I could have said no thanks, could have hung on – it was an offer not a command. But like a lot of writers I guess, the thought of Giving Up The Day Job has a kind of talismanic power that overtakes reason. In any case, I reckoned, so long as I can cover my child support payments that’s okay. Well, now it’s about three weeks until the day job gives up on me – and I’m spending a lot of time intimate with the fear that maybe I’m not a good enough writer to catch the pennies. So many people have fear imposed on them, whereas – perhaps dumbly – I seem to have jumped right off a cliff though the rocks down the bottom look real and pretty sharp. Of course I tell myself I could get another job, go to college, do stuff – there’s no world ended here. But although I know those things to be true the future looks scarily unwritten, maybe suggesting I’ve got more comfortable in the land of the regular wage than I like to admit. I’ve been trying to remind myself I did much crazier things twenty years back but strangely, that’s no cure all!
I have to say, too, that your final paragraph made me smile. I used to work with a guy whose hobby was mountaineering – he’d climbed Qomolangma / Everest about five times or something. I asked him one day if he’d ever gone the opposite direction and tried caving. He stared and said, “Underground? You have to be mad to do that.” Of course: no one who takes chances can be wholly without fear.

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One thing that’s helped me get through moments of irrational fear (like social situations) is to take a curious perspective, what another speaker or writer called “seeking the truth of the situation.” In other words, when facing a fear, you’re facing an unknown. You have to admit you don’t know how the situation will play out. It could be bad, but it could be good. If I look at it like an experiment, tell myself “well, the only way to find out the reality of the situation is to jump in,” it seems to help.

This probably isn’t what you meant by “I was pinned to the truth of the moment.” But it’s what I thought of.

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@Mark: hang in there. I can identify. Leaving the sure thing of a weekly paycheck is very scary. Try not to lose faith in yourself. FDR’s old adage of fearing fear itself is true: we’re often done in by our thoughts, not by reality. Keep writing, and good luck!

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excellent words about fear. powerful, ass-kicking emotion when he gets out of control. I envy the time you must spend reading, but I’m thankful you point out the ones worth finding. and, of course, I admire that you won the depo game.

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@Jeff P: Thanks – much appreciated. I’m at one of those times when all the signs point in the same direction, the road is trying to drag me forward but my feet are unwilling to move. The ideal is maybe to learn to use fear to propel ourselves on rather than hold us back.

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“the place beyond the ‘fuck it’” and the gatekeeper note about not wanting it bad enough really stuck with me, so good. I LOVE FEAR! This was a freaking awesome post.

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I’m all for the notion of writing into our fears. Go fearward and write whatever it is that makes you sweat, so one of my writing mentors, Barbara turner Vesselago, recommends. And I agree, but I don’t want to turn it into a religious edict. For me one of the greatest fears is to be boring in my writing.

Jim Murdoch sent me here.

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Another awesome post. You are the one and only blogger I follow that delivers a consistently entertaining and thought provoking message. You are amazing.

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Wow. I don’t know how I didn’t see this when it was posted, but I didn’t. Which is good, because I needed to read it today. Funny how that happens, isn’t it?

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excellent post! I read deBeckers’ book over 10 years ago and resonated with it. Just a thought: have you ever considered that your stone castle with the bright sun, etc. just beyond the walls was a pre-birth experience?

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We make excuses. We procrastinate. We look for ways to escape the moment. <- OMG this is so me! It's like you pulled my thoughts out of my subconscious & gave them a voice. Thank you for such an introspective piece. I'm working on "pulling myself up the rock." — it's articles like this that help me along the way. :)

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I have come within moments of death. I am young and it wasn’t anything I could have avoided. Since it happened I have been looking at my life as moments within moments. Between them are thoughts of what death would be like. It makes life easier to do, because its not forever.

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