I'm afraid of writing about fear. There, I said it. I've been stalling - see the Why Interviews Rock post for proof - because the topic of fear is so huge, so central, so debilitatingly fundamental to career avoidance.
And because I'm no expert in handling fear. By any stretch.
But I am an expert in having fear.
I've been plagued and paralyzed by fears and anxieties ever since I can remember. I was that kid who ate the exact same food for every meal, laid in bed at night wondering if my parents were still alive, and avoided costumed characters like the plague (fine, they still freak me out, but I won't get into my psychological profiling of people who take jobs as characters here). I always thought something was wrong with me. Especially when I reached my late twenties and fears still hounded me. By that point I held adult-type fears - fears of failure, of success, of making the wrong choices, of social censure, of disappointment, of "forever" - but still, shouldn't I have been past fear by then?
It wasn't until my late twenties when I sat down with the book The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes that I accepted that having fear is normal - it's even healthy and beneficial - but obsessing over getting rid of fear is not.
We often use the terms fearless and courageous as if they were synonyms. In fact they're closer to antonyms. Mark Twain defined courage as "resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear." General Omar Bradley called it "the capacity to perform properly even when scared half to death." In The Courage to Create, Rollo May pointed out that existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre all concurred that courage didn't mean the absence of despair; rather it meant "the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair."
Apparently this is a lesson I've had to learn repeatedly. I jot the date whenever I read a book; the inner cover of The Courage to Write reads like Heidi Montag's plastic surgery log, exhibiting the need for frequent hits:
- "Read 5/2005 (age 27)"
- "Re-read 9/07 during a crisis of courage (age 29)"
- "Re-read 6/09 during yet another (every 2 years?!) (age 31)"
Clearly fear is a common denominator in my life. [A friend once remarked that I have more fears than just about anyone she knows, yet have done more in my life than just about anyone she knows. (RE: the latter, apparently she doesn't know many people.)]
I have faced numerous crises of courage, just like I see many of you grappling with on your blogs. Whoever's in their twenties and claims otherwise, they're lying.
When I picked up and left an all-expenses-paid PhD program in which I was earning an A+? Scared out of my mind. When I moved 400 miles away from all of my friends and family? Frightened beyond belief. When I chose to go part-time while teaching at Bates College, then chose to take a year off to write, then chose to turn down a class just a month ago, even though I need the money? Anxious, terrified, petrified.
Yet I did all of those things. And those are just the career-ish decisions of my life.
I do not, however, believe in the stock notion of "facing your fears." Courage is a muscle that takes loads of mental and physical energy to operate. Why waste that muscle on "facing your fears" as a matter of course? I believe instead in walking past the fears that get in the way of the life I want to lead. The other fears, the ones that are just floating out there not doing me any harm, those don't need to be faced, maybe ever. I mean, I find the Octomom to be scary in many respects, but I'm not about to hang posters of her around my house to get over it.
The way I handle important fears - like the crippling fears that make me want to run to a "secure" and "stable" job every, oh, two months or so - is to simply acknowledge them. And then move on as if they weren't there. Taking Zantac as I go.
And so as we embark on our "Fear Series" here in Career Avoidance 101, starting first with general thoughts on fear and then proceeding to the specific fears that paralyze our career prospects, I'll do the same thing:
I'm scared as hell of writing about fear because I might bungle the topic, not have anything useful to say, and make you all withdraw from the class in mass hordes in the process.
And yet, onward we march. Next lesson: What does it really mean to "outgrow your fears"? (I promise less professorial navel-gazing in that installment.)
But first, it's time for some class participation (yes, I am grading this): How do you handle fear?
I suppose that's one way to deal with fear. (Photo credit: Frau Shizzle)