the art of being fearless
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.