Franklin Roosevelt said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." If I'm really honest with myself, the only thing that holds me back is my fear. When I think of somewhat risky things that might enliven my life, often the first thing that comes over me are subtle bodily warnings with anticipatory images, either of failure or mediocrity. So much of what stops me and my clients from risk-taking, trying out something new or making creative mistakes is a fear of something unknown. My friend and coaching peer, Peter Bostelmann, and I were discussing this very topic over lunch today. I was describing this urge to take on a new project, one that would challenge me to give my gifts and, at the same time, would be an expression of what I sense my life purpose is all about. As I attempted to share the details of that project, being the good listener that he is, he noticed that I was holding back, even being a bit shy about it. When we looked closely together, I could see that much of what held me back was a part of me I'd rejected, a younger part of me that felt ashamed for wanting to share myself for fear of being dismissed or disregarded as frivolous.
He helped me identify that part of me that doesn't want to feel old childhood feelings again. That fear of really taking a risk and following my heart, he posited, might just be the avoidance of feeling those feelings again. I believe what he's saying is true. When I look at different aspects of my childhood, I can see that a lot of what stops me is that I was either taught or I decided that certain parts of me were whole and others were broken, incomplete, or misaligned. A lot of the work I've done, either in coaching, in therapy, on the yoga mat, or on the meditation cushion has been in service to healing those parts that feel fragmented. And yet, I also recognize that not everything gets healed and even when there is some healing, those fears that stop us are still present. Why?
Maybe our fear isn't run exclusively by our avoidance of certain past experiences and wounds. Maybe, in addition, what stops us is our inability to anticipate our future. All that we're capable of knowing with certainty is that we will die, that at some point we will have to say goodbye to our loved ones, let go of all that we have created, and surrender to the great mystery called death. I wonder if what's stopping me isn't just that my dad didn't tuck me in one night when I was seven years old. I know that had an impact on me. But maybe what stops me is that I know that one day it will all go.
I've been facing that recognition more and more, the idea that at some point we all are forced to let go of what we love. As I continue to open my heart ever more to my wife, Melissa, I keep running painfully into the fear, that at some point either she will die or I will die. It's a horribly morbid thought, but one can't help but notice it when intimate ties grow stronger. I wonder if that's what makes vulnerability so challenging with those we are most intimately connected to, like our significant others, our parents, and our siblings. We rarely consciously face the thought that eventually we will have to say, "Goodbye," but I wonder whether somewhere in the back of our minds, we sense or even premeditate that loss and, as a result, guard our hearts, so we won't have to face the intensity of the pain once it actually occurs.
Hindsight and Foresight
Does our aversion to past experiences create this low-grade, unknown fear? Or do we fear and thus protect ourselves from the fact that some day it will all go? Either way, we, unlike any other species in the world are cursed and/or blessed with hindsight and foresight. These two perspectives do funny things to our nervous systems. They're not always the most empowering. In fact, they're often paralyzing. Is it my past that's holding me back? Is it my fear of eventual success, failure, or mediocrity and eventual death that stops me from taking the great leap into the unknown?
Ultimately, it doesn't really matter. All that matters is that I find the place inside that doesn't fear the fear and, at the same time, hold a healthy regard for it, too. I suppose that's the learning in all of this meandering for me. That's where I have to look. Courage, then, is the willingness not to take on the anticipated journey all at once but to just take the step that's presented here and now, the one that's right in front of me, the one that I fear but also the one I know is where I am called.