Over the last couple of years, several of my friends have called me brave. I’ve sat with them over meals, over coffee, over wine, in cafes, in restaurants, in bars, in movie theaters and on park benches. These gatherings – to catch up, to check in, to touch base – have more often than not involved them asking how I’m doing, and me, trying to spin things toward the positive, trying to portray life in the best possible light, trying to smile because I’ve grown so weary of all the tears.
Inevitably, the ‘brave’ word comes up. But I don’t believe it. It doesn’t feel like me.
Why brave, exactly? Because I watched both of my parents die at a relatively young age? Because I weathered a year of incredibly hard things? Because I’m still weathering hard things? Because through it all, I’ve kept going, rather than falling apart?
But really, what choice did I have? Life is a surprise, unfolding events over which I’ve had no control; over which none of us has any control. Like it or not, the truth is that I’ve had little choice but to accept everything that life has thrown at me, and try to move forward. So how exactly, does that make me brave?
I suppose the realization of just how little control I have should make me feel a certain amount of freedom, right? After all, since nothing can be done, what’s the point of worrying about the outcome, or of feeling afraid?
But it hasn’t worked that way. In fact the opposite is true. The certainty that nothing is certain has, ironically, only amped up the control freak in me, has only elevated my every anxiety. My fear of heights? Worse. My fear of flying? Worse. My fear of just about everything? Worse.
So when people call me brave, I want to laugh out loud. I’m afraid of my own shadow, people. I’m like a little kid all over again, except not, because when I was a little kid I wasn’t afraid of things like I am now. Call it a lack of awareness of my own mortality, call it blissful ignorance about the fragility of human life, call it the magic of childhood wonder and amazement, call it the ability to create with reckless abandon without fear of judgment. Call it all of those things. But whatever you call it, I wish I still had it, instead of this pervasive, paralyzing certainty that danger is everywhere and that nothing is safe.
I am not, nor have I ever been, a passive person. I’m hyper aware of the fact that I’m afraid of everything, and it pisses me off. I hate it. One of my best – and worst – qualities is that I’m stubborn as an ox, and when I feel the fear snaking its icy fingers around my neck, I fight. I realize the irrationality, the pointlessness of my fear, and I struggle to put myself in situations that scare me. I fight my impulse to stay home, hiding under the covers. Over the last few months, I’ve forced myself out of the house to meet new people, to join new groups and organizations, to try to stand on my own two feet as this different person I’ve become. I’ve tried to be braver with my writing, recounting personal things that are difficult to talk about. I’ve tried to be braver with my art. I’ve started projects that I’m worried will fail. I’m worried that, ultimately, I will fail.
Most of the time, I feel like a fraud, because I’m not brave at all. But I want to be. I’ve pinned the Jack Canfield quote ‘Everything you want is on the other side of fear,’ to my bulletin board and I read it so often that the words echo in my brain. And I resolve to keep fighting the icy fingers snaking around my neck.
Tomorrow, I’m leaving on one such fear-fighting mission. I’m heading to a writers’ retreat on a remote island in northern Washington State. A whole day of travel to get there – planes and shuttles and cars and ferry boats – and then 3 ½ days spent sharing a cabin with strangers, delving into things I can’t even imagine, but that I can only assume will be personal, vulnerable, and hopefully life-affirming. It’s like summer camp meets the first day of school on steroids. I’m terrified. And I can’t wait.
I am not brave. I am about 100 miles from brave. I am fragile. I am easily broken. I am afraid most of the time. But I am also angry. I am fighting. And I am doing everything I can think of to get to the other side of fear. I hope this weekend helps. I hope I find something on that island, in those Washington woods, that I didn’t have before. I hope it teaches me something I didn’t already know. I hope it makes me just a little bit braver.
Wish me luck.
Until next time, friends.