Today, I wrestled with this question: What is the one thing that's most holding you back from the life you most want to live? I wrote the answer down on a Post-it note. I stared at it for a while, and then I crumpled it up. It was supposed to be symbolic--like I'm letting go, walking away once and for all. I was supposed to throw it away.
I didn't, though--I put it in my pocket and held onto it. Here I am, late at night, in those hours where I always find my hopes and dreams and fears colliding and tangling together, staring at this note. Staring at this thing that always comes back to remind me I'm not quite as free as I think I am.
Through wrinkles and creases, the words read:
I'm afraid I will always fall short.
That sentence isn't new to me; those words aren't strangers. I've known them for a long time. They've become like a step-brother I never wanted, never got along with, but I grew to live with him. Tolerate him. Now, he's as much a part of my life as the chip in my tooth from sixth grade, as the scar I bear from back surgery, as my distaste for the smell of tuna.
I think we learn things as kids, responses to people and situations, and we never quite unlearn or relearn them properly. Some of us have learned irrational anxiety whenever we think someone's walking out on us because Dad walked out one day and never came back. Some of us have learned how to dress ourselves with layers of impenetrable steel because it was the only way to survive those cutthroat high school years. And here we are, adults at 21, 25, 30, 40, 50 years old, successful and contributing citizens who cling to our childhood vices.
These blankies, these tattered stuffed animals--they are the fears that have never left us, and try as we might to keep them hidden under our beds from Ikea or Pier 1, they crawl out and expose us.
I learned to fear falling short because at certain points in my life, I did fall short. And I hated how that felt. I figured out how to avoid feeling like that at all costs. I learned not to ask for anything because I wouldn't have to hear "no." I lost some of my competitive edge--I hated losing so much, and it was much easier to pretend like I didn't care. With any girl I ever dated, I never tipped my hand first, never put myself out there before I knew she was into me, never risked anything but a done deal.
My fear of falling short has crawled out again and again and again.
Honestly, I think I hold onto this fear because I'm afraid of putting life to the test--really putting it to the test. I'm afraid that I'll find out that life really is just disappointment after disappointment. That some of us, like me, are destined to always come up just short. That no matter how hard I try, I will never quite reach the thing I'm stretching my hands toward.
I'm afraid to discover that love really is only the cheap knockoff that I've experienced so far. That everything I've experienced is as good as it will ever get. That my story will always be defined by heartbreak and suffering. That the last taste in my mouth--bitter and unsatisfying--is the one I'll live with forever.
If I keep myself from really chasing life, from giving legs to my hopes and dreams, I never have to face those possibilities. It's almost better that way. I can deal with the small disappointments, but I don't know if I can deal with the worst fears I have coming true. When faced with those options, my decision to hold on to my fear of coming up short makes sense. It's easier, more manageable. It's how I survive.
And yet...I have to stop. I have to give it up. And soon.
No matter how tight a grip my fears keep on me, there are times when I feel like my chest is ready to explode. My dreams and hopes refuse to shrink away for too long. They inevitably surge back in rolling, swelling waves and crash against my rib cage. As long as I hold onto this fear of mine, I'll never have peace. The better side of me, the hopeful side, won't let me rest.
Giving up a fear like this is easier said than done. There's no pill I can pop, no shortcut, no easy roads. There are only small decisions I can make every day to stay steady in hope instead of giving in to my fear.
I'm ripping this note up and throwing it in the trash tonight.
I'm going to have to do it again tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that.
It's tiring work to have to drop this fear again every single day, but what I'm choosing in its place, hope, is worth it.
I have to believe it's worth it.