fear

On Quitting Small and Safe

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In the book Love Does, Bob Goff talks about how he quits something every Thursday. The idea revolves around this: we pick up so much unnecessary stuff along the way—we can always benefit from cutting off some dead weight.

If you’ve picked up a bad habit of eating unhealthy food, you could quit that. If you realize you criticize others or yourself too much, you could quit that. If you watch too much Netflix, you could quit that. (Only after you finish the latest House of Cards season, of course.)

I know it’s not Thursday, but today, I’m going to quit something.

I want to quit caging my hope.

I want to quit putting chains on what’s possible in this life.

I want to quit extinguishing my dreams.

This is a simplified summary of the inner workings of my mind and heart: I have a dream, an idea, a thought of what some aspect of life could or should be. I envision that a relationship could be a certain way, or that a group of people could come together and create a certain kind of community, or that I could accomplish some task or purpose with a skill I have. Hope sparks inside me. As my heart beats faster, it fans that flame until it grows into a fire.

But it doesn’t stay that way for long. I have this funny habit of shutting down my hope. It’s like I go to the store and pick out a shiny, sexy dream I love. I bring it home, set it down on the living room floor, and just stare at it. Before I ever even take it out of the packaging, I convince myself it’s not for me. The next day, I’m in the customer service line ready to return it.

I keep thinking…why do I do this?

Our past experiences have a way of shaping our current perspective.

For a long time, I let a single relationship douse my dreams. I allowed it to cut off the oxygen from what I hoped for and wanted out of life. For such a long time and with such consistency, my hopes were put out like a cigarette butt ground into the pavement by an unforgiving heel. Soon enough, hoping and dreaming could barely move past the ignition phase. It was like trying to start a campfire in the rain with water-logged wood.

I started to believe the ways I dreamed life could be, the hope I had, the kind of relationships I wanted, the places I could travel, the accomplishments I could achieve, the depth of love into which I could dive…were impossible. Foolish.

They were either fairy tales, or they were for somebody else, not me. This is what was for me: small dreams. Safe dreams. Anything that could fit inside the thimble-sized cage that was my reality for so long.

I can’t accept that anymore.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve tasted just enough, I’ve glimpsed just enough of what’s possible for us in this life. It’s like I lived underground for years, stopped believing in things like the sun and daylight, and suddenly rays of light began to force their way through some cracks above (Kimmy Schmidt, anyone?).

So today, I’m untethering my hope. I’m expanding my vision for what I’m capable of and what is within my reach.

I’m quitting fear. I’m quitting doubt. I’m quitting safe and small dreams. I’ve limited myself for too much time, for too many dark and claustrophobic years.

I’m going to let the fire grow.

I’m going to step off the ledge.

I’m going to dive deep.

It’s time.

***

Feature photo ©2013 James Wheeler | Flickr

I Prefer You

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I hate meeting new people. I should be more accurate--I hate the process of meeting new people. I hate the awkward dance that takes place: the timid steps of small-talk pleasantries and arm's-length questions like "What do you do?" or "Where are you from?"

I get it--we make sterile small talk because we don't know this new person. We want to get a feel for him or her. We want to know if we can trust this stranger or see if we even like this stranger before we go any deeper. It's like we set up all these elaborate ropes and boundaries, and we have big bouncers with beady little eyes and their arms folded over their barrel chests who make sure nobody crosses those lines until we've fully vetted them.

But me...I'd prefer to know a person and be known by that person sooner rather than later. I want to skip the formalities and the name-tag, icebreaker phase. I want to push my way from the outskirts of the crowd, sneak under the velvet rope, and access the VIP section.

I understand that kind of access requires some degree of trust. Without that trust, without the right credentials, I'd push my way in only to have the person ask, "Who the heck are you?"

The way I've learned to handle these situations is to go ahead and answer that question. Directly, and honestly. This is who I am. This is where I've been. This is my story, and these are my scars. These are my joys, and these are my heartbreaks.

And more often than not, when I've lowered my mask and revealed me--the real me and not the doctored-up version most people see from a distance--I've been given an all-access pass in return. I can look back at so many of my closest relationships and identify the turning point from acquaintance to life-long friend--it has always involved a moment of vulnerability by one or both people.

Sometimes, we're so afraid of people knowing our story because we worry people might not like what they see behind the curtain when it's pulled back.

Because of that fear, we stay hidden behind our heavy curtains, we rope off our story from the people around us, and we continue to interact at a safe distance. To be fair, sometimes that fear materializes. We let down our guard, we let someone really see us, and instead of open arms, we're met with rejection.

Hey. Please get this.

If you reveal your story to someone, and he doesn't like what he hears, he doesn't deserve your time.

If you unveil your true self to someone, and she rejects you because of it, she doesn't deserve you.

I've been rejected by people who have seen the real me. There's great freedom in realizing I don't need people like that. And, as much as I try to be open and accepting, I've rejected people who have revealed themselves to me. Honestly, those people don't need me either. They deserve better.

We try so hard to sanitize our story, cover our blemishes with concealer, pull our sleeves over our scars, all to make ourselves more acceptable to more people.

What if we don't need to be more appealing to more people? What if what we really need is to weed out more people who don't accept us so we can discover the ones who will?

Your story is you. Your flaws are you. Your scars are you. You need people who want you. You need people who know you, and prefer you. You need people who will move toward you rather than away from you.

You need people who appreciate a good story, and every good story has its share of complications, mess, winding roads, darkness, and disaster.

You need people who aren't interested in flat, flawless characters from their fantasies. You need people who appreciate the contours of the bruised and beautiful bodies of real human beings.

I, for one, would rather know early on whether someone is going to be for me or not. Whether my story will be "acceptable" enough or not. Whether my messes are too messy or my flaws are too flawed.

The people who have accepted me have said to me what I hope I also say to them:

I see you. I see your story--the ups and the downs, the beauty and the breaks, and I still want in.

I don't want the stage version of you, the photo-op you, or the "Sunday best" you.

I want the behind-the-scenes you, the first-thing-in-the-morning you, the sweats-and-tee-shirt you.

I don't want the safe you or the sanitized you.

Now that I've seen you, I prefer you

Anxiety Is For Weak People

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I've been to the school nurse many times as a kid. On most of those occasions, I simply wanted to get out of class. Once, I was there to get a physical, and I had to stand in my underwear with a bunch of other boys in their underwear. I didn't like that. A year and a half ago, a full-fledged adult, I found myself standing in the doorway of the school nurse yet again. "Hi. I need to lie down."

The nurse lifted her eyes up from her computer screen, and when she saw that it was me, she rose to her feet, pointed to the bed in the back of the room and said, "Okay. How about right here?"

I made my way over to the low bed and slowly slid onto it. My whole body was tense. My forehead was gleaming with sweat. My heart was beating hard and fast. My teeth ground into each other as I tried to control my breathing.

She asked me what was wrong. I explained that I had been standing guard at an assembly for our middle school students when I suddenly felt like I was going to faint. I told her about my heart. I told her about my trouble breathing.

I didn't tell her I had slid out of the assembly and gone straight to the bathroom, where I leaned against the wall and tried to fight for control over my body for several minutes before I decided to come see her. I became convinced I would pass out. Since I had locked myself in the single-person faculty bathroom, the potential scenarios concerned me--I could have hit my head off the sink and bled out. I could have fallen face-first into the toilet and had to explain to my students why Mr. Heggie looked like he went for a swim. (Also, in that scenario, I would have thrown up after I regained consciousness and realized where my head had been sitting.) Or, simply, I would have been sprawled out on the floor, MIA to everyone else for who knows how long.

It was fear--the fear of passing out in front of my students, of passing out in the bathroom, or of the faint possibility that something critical was wrong with me--that led me to her office and had me confessing even the little bit of information I had conceded to her. And it was fear that was having its way with my body.

She said to me, "It sounds like it might be an anxiety attack."

"Oh. Really?" I tried to fake that I was surprised by her suggestion, but I already knew what it was.

The first attack had come earlier that year. It was on my morning drive to work. My chest felt like it had collapsed on me. The experience was so bizarre and foreign to me, I thought I was having a heart attack. I pulled the car over, and in the darkness of that pre-dawn morning, bewildered and full of fear, I slumped over my steering wheel and gasped for breath. It wasn't the last time I'd have to pull the car over to fight for calm, to put air in my lungs.

The attacks woke me up at night, too. Those were the worst. Being woken by an anxiety attack might as well be the same as being woken by a real person trying to strangle me. Yanked out of my dreams, I would be disoriented, panicked, and sometimes it was hard to tell what was reality and what wasn't. With a jolt, I'd find myself in darkness, unable to breathe, covered in sweat, grabbing hold of anything to root myself in reality again--my hair, a pillow, the blanket, the headboard.

In the span of about a year, I had a dozen or more attacks, the last one landing me in that nurse's office. Lying on the tiny, hard bed, I couldn't help but feel a little foolish, like I was back in third grade again.

Even though I'm far removed from my last one, I hate talking about my experience with anxiety attacks. I hate the idea of people knowing about this part of my past. Here's why:

People like me aren't supposed to have anxiety attacks. Let me summarize my views about them before I had my first one: Weak people have anxiety. Weak people have anxiety attacks. Strong people don't have anxiety or anxiety attacks. I am a strong a person; therefore, anxiety and anxiety attacks will never be my problem.

Anxiety is for weak people, and I'm not one of them.

Before I ever experienced an attack, I had zero empathy for people with anxiety. None. I couldn't relate. I never considered myself to be someone who struggled with any level of anxiety. I'd never been the type to worry or sweat the small stuff or fixate on a problem.

Until, that is, I found myself in the fight of my life for my marriage--a losing battle.

Every day, I thought about it. Every day, I thought about what was wrong. Every day, I fought the frustration that I couldn't seem to fix things. Every day, I faced the possibility of the end. Every day, I battled with the lack of control I seemed to have over the situation. Like an eclipse, it seemed to slide between me and the sun--my world became strangely dark.

I was running low on everything--sleep, energy, self-confidence, hope.

In other words, I was cooking up a perfect recipe for anxiety.

For a while, I was ashamed of those anxiety attacks. There was only one person who knew how rattled I was. It was all very hush-hush. I wanted so badly to maintain a brave face. I would have loved for people to see me only through idealistic, machismo-tinted lenses: I climb mountains. I scale buildings. I jump off cliffs. I explore caves. I go camping in the woods by myself. I don't fear heights. I don't always wash my vegetables. I don't need a night light. (Yeah, I have one in my room, but I don't use it--it's just for show.)

Paul Freaking Heggie does not have, should not have, can not have anxiety attacks. That doesn't happen to people like me.

Even with the weight of what I was facing at that time, I thought I could handle it all. I was David, and I looked at my burdens like they were Goliath. Sure, Goliath's bigger than me, but I'm going to drop him to the ground and take off his head. That's bravery. That's strength. That's me.

But try as I might to fight them, when those anxiety attacks hit me, they brought me to my knees. You can't "beat" an anxiety attack. I learned you can't even really prevent one. Once it strikes, there's no fighting it. You can only let it ride out in calm surrender. Once I had experienced a few, I started worrying about when the next one would come--and where. Rarely in my life have I felt that weak and powerless. That's not the David and Goliath story I was going for.

Those attacks feel like ages ago now. I've had a bit of time and distance from those experiences, and my perspective on anxiety has shifted since then.

What if being strong doesn't mean that we slay all of our Goliaths? What if being brave doesn't mean that we always conquer all of our fears? What if we're not meant to win every single battle?

I think being strong and being brave is simply showing up for the fight.

There are so many people for whom anxiety is a Goliath they can't fight against and win by themselves. They need backup. They need the support of family and friends. Some need the help of doctors, therapists, and medicine.

There are people who think that because anxiety beats them down sometimes, they're not strong. There are people who think that because they wrestle with anxiety, they're not brave.

I don't think that's true.

I think you're strong--you wake up every day and continue to fight. That's no small feat. Some days you win the battle, some days you don't, but that's true for even the strongest of people.

I think you're brave--you have the courage to keep going despite your anxiety. Plenty of brave people have fallen. Plenty of brave people have lost. All brave people feel fear. The bravest people are the ones who get up again and walk back onto the battlefield knowing what they have to face. That's you.

Those of who us who are strong, who are brave, we don't win every time. We simply keep showing up to the fight. We keep holding on to hope. We persevere through the battles.

***

Last week, I paid another visit to the nurse's office. This time, I had a splinter in my finger that needed to be removed. She sat me down next to her desk, told me I wasn't allowed to look, and went to work. Guys, I didn't even flinch or shed a tear.

Brave, right?

An Open Letter to My Fear

gun We first met when I was young. You wore a crisp, black suit with a black tie. You knelt down, shook my hand, and introduced yourself as a friend.

You were selling me security, safety. My parents, of course, were on board with this. In the beginning, you started off with simple lessons:

Don't cross the street without holding someone's hand; you could be hit by a car.

Don't play with Dad's razor; you could get cut.

Wear a helmet when you ride your bike; you could damage your head.

After a little while, I started to trust you. You became more and more a part of my life--you moved in, you came with me to school, to church, to the park. You followed me, always just behind me, always ready to jump in and save me from myself.

Still, I made you crazy at times. I could be stubborn. Like the time I ignored your screaming at me not to play with fire. That was the day I almost burned the woods down. I spent 30 minutes stamping out little flames, and you scolded me the whole time. I still think it was one of the funniest days of my life.

It took something a little more close to home for me to listen to you, though.

You remember that night, right? The night my girlfriend told me she was upset because I had ignored her, that she spent the day with that one guy, that she ended the night with her lips on his?

I was lying on the floor, pieces of my heart scattered around me, when you laid your hand on my shoulder like the gnarled claws of a vulture and whispered in my ear, "You see? You see what happens when you open your heart? You see what happens when you make a mistake?"

I did see. You helped me up, and you wrapped your arms around me, and you said, "I know what's best." I nodded and rested my head on your shoulder. You smelled like a hospital room.

***

Every day, I affixed all of the pieces of armor you wanted me to wear under my clothes. To protect you, you would say. And I would drag myself, clumsy, clanking, toward the door to face the dangerous world outside.

For a while, I walked only where you allowed me to walk. I tried only what you allowed me to try. I shared only what you allowed me to share. I loved only how you allowed me to love.

I would see someone living out their dreams, but you would be there, just over my shoulder, to point out that I could never do that. Tsk, tsk. Too risky.

I would start to speak up about what I wanted or needed, but you would put your hand over my mouth and remind me that she might leave me. Shh. It's not important, then.

You worked so hard to get me like that. You miss those days, I'm sure.

***

We were in the middle of a fight, you and me. Who knows anymore what set it off, but I was standing there in all my cumbersome armor and telling you how claustrophobic it had all become and how I hated living like this and how I didn't think you actually cared about my well-being after all.

"Without me," you said through clenched teeth, "you wouldn't survive."

I looked at you and began to peel off the armor you made me wear. They fell to the ground until I was surrounded by cast-iron flakes of skin.

"Do your worst," I said.

You pulled a revolver, black as your eyes, out of your coat and pointed it straight at my heart. I followed the barrel with my eyes to your hand and up your arm and shoulder and to your sick, still face with all its quiet hate.

I thought you were bluffing.

I was wrong.

***

After you pulled the trigger, after you left me a bloody mess there on the floor, you thought you had finally broken me for good.

You thought you had made me your blind Samson, shackled and docile, with nothing left to do but grind grain and wait for death.

You were wrong.

***

I saw you, Fear, do your worst, and realized my heart was still squeezing blood to all corners of my body, my lungs were still feeding me air, and that your gospel of safety and security and self preservation was a slick sales pitch designed to steal my life, not protect it.

Now that I've seen you for what you are--not a friend, not family, not someone who wants what's best but a slimy, slithering parasite--I want you out. Gone. You're not welcome here anymore.

No more following me like my shadow. No more whispers in my ear. No more scary stories at night while I'm trying to fall asleep. I'm done with that now.

I'm sure I'll find you on the sidewalk outside my house begging to get a word in, or that I'll find some messages from you late at night trying to tell me about how dangerous it is to put my heart on the line or dream dreams or risk disappointment. I'm sure you'll do everything you can to work yourself back in.

Go ahead and try.

I stared down the barrel of your gun.

I watched you pull the trigger.

I felt your bullet tear through my flesh and lodge itself in my chest.

On what should have been my death bed, Love found me, reached inside and pulled the bullet out and reconnected my blood vessels and pieced my tissue back together and set my rib cage back in place and told my heart to beat and my lungs to expand and stood me on my feet and looked me in my eyes and said in a voice simultaneously as powerful as a waterfall and as soft as the dew:

"Fear no longer has power here."

Love has moved in now, and I only have room for one.

I hope you'll understand.

Farewell, fear.

***

Feature photo ©2008 AppleDave | Flickr | cc

The Michelada and the Dream Myth

After a morning in which I slept in and then recklessly mauled his neck with a set of hair clippers, my friend and I arrived hopelessly late to a popular brunch spot in Manhattan's Lower East Side which turned us down at 1:00 p.m. even though it closed at 6:00. This led to us finding Fonda, a Mexican spot down the street, and me having a showdown with a drink that I saw dancing a bit on the page of the menu:

michelada

The Michelada: Your choice of beer mixed with lime juice, hot sauce and chile rim.

My eyes gleamed with the flame of adventure. I looked at my friend and said, "I have to try this."

The waiter set down a glass of swirling crimson liquid with chile that lined the rim like glowing embers. He poured a bottle of Pacifico into the hot sauce, and the volcanic mix foamed its way to the top of the glass. A smile of thirsty wonder and fear grew on my face.

***

The Michelada is now filed under Decisions I Don't Regret but Will Never Do Again. It joins a large company of other decisions I've made, though none quite so...burn-y.

That chile-laced decision came this past Saturday, not too long after a conversation I had with some friends about dreams. More than one of my friends expressed that they didn't really have a dream. The dream. The one that keeps them up at night. The one they doodled about in their 5th grade notebook or tattooed on their ankle during a missions trip to Mexico.

They're still searching for that rare breed of dream that seems more myth than reality. When you reach a certain age, it seems like we should have this figured out by now, right? Something that Bob Goff wrote in his book Love Does about doing and not just dreaming got me thinking: Maybe we don't find our dreams; maybe our dreams find us.

We can spend years, most of our lives, fretting over what our dreams could or should be. We stare at the article about clean water in Africa and try to suck the passion out of the screen and into our hearts. We think about TOMS Shoes and wish we would have thought of that idea first. We want to convince ourselves we should sell all of our stuff and live in the slums of India. Then we get honest with ourselves and think, I just don't want to do that.

In the meantime, we do nothing. We're too scared to step out into any endeavor because we don't have the proper passion, vision, or dream to justify it. What if I take that job, move to that place, volunteer for this organization, meet up with those people, and discover it's not the stuff dreams are made of?

We need to learn to simply do and be okay with the fact that it might not be our dream. In fact, we might hate it. But now we know it's something we don't want to do, and that's one step closer to clarity. On the other hand, we may discover we love it, but we have to take the chance to risk in the first place.

After moving to Philadelphia, I decided to teach in the inner city--not because of some mystical calling or childhood dream to be Sidney Poitier or Michelle Pfeiffer or Hilary Swank. I simply wanted to see what it was like. By the end of the year, I had experienced a class that had no heat in the winter, no air conditioning in the summer, mice crawling around the rafters, flying cockroaches, emotionally disturbed students who never took their meds and didn't have the proper support, broken kids from broken homes, but beautiful kids who somehow made me smile as much as they made me yell.

Ultimately, at the end of the year, I realized it wasn't for me. I don't regret that time at all--it was one more adjustment to the lenses of my life. I could see a bit clearer.

When we stop stalling in life while we wait on a magical phone call from Destiny or a telegram from the Dream Factory and we simply do something, we move in a positive direction. Even when we end up hating the thing we do. We scratch it off the list, we readjust, and we take the next step with one more piece of valuable knowledge under our belts.

Maybe we need to reframe how we think about dreams. Too many people I know have stumbled into their dreams rather than chased them down. This happens with jobs, relationships, and passions. It leads me to think that dreams are less a white whale that eludes us as we frantically search to capture and club it into submission. Dreams are more the aroma that rises and fills our nostrils while we cook something in our very own kitchen. They bubble up around us as we do the things we do.

We simply need the courage to step out and try something new every once in a while and the courage to walk away if we realize it's not for us. Slowly but surely, or perhaps out of nowhere one day, our dreams will find us even in places we didn't expect to meet.

***

The Michelada will haunt me for years to come, I suspect. I'll wake in the middle of the night fearing that my mouth and my entire digestive system are set ablaze. But I will not regret the decision to try it. The next time we go to Fonda, I'll have eleven drinks to choose from instead of twelve.

I like those odds.

***

I'd love to hear your stories of what you'd file under Decisions I Don't Regret but Will Never Do Again, or how you've come to discover what is or is not your dream.

What do ya got?