what would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Posted: December 28, 2010 in A Day in the Life

Nearing the end of an anything is enough reason to find a moment to pause.  This is especially so with the end of a calendar year.  It’s a natural time to reflect on the poignant moments of the previous 365.24 days with all its gladness and sorrows and to hopefully emerge with a sense of purpose and determination for the year that lies just on the other side of midnight.

At the end of a particular, strenuous last year, my family and I spent an unforgettable evening with two good friends and their children.  It was an evening filled with laughter and honest conversation about life and the realities it delivers at our doorstep each morning.  There was a question that had been bothering me for weeks, or to put it more honestly, years.  It was one of those burning questions that piques your curiosity but which you try to shove deep into your pocket for fear of what answering it would mean.  Well, as it is with most questions of this sort, it is only a moment or two before it sears through the fabric of wherever you’ve put it and tumbles out into the middle of the floor for everyone to see.  This is how it was that night that marked the end of one year and the cusp of a new.

“What would you do it you weren’t afraid?”.

“Of what?  Afraid of what?”

“Of anything at all.  What would you do if you weren’t afraid of anything? I mean, like, anything.”


A woman who has carried a child to the moment of birth feels a sharp, eternal sort of pain of what is coming to pass.  This moment is off-the-charts excruciating and yet the promise of what lies on the other side compels her to push forward into that next moment where the pain begins to recede and a new little, beautiful life may be pondered.  It’s that panicked moment when she realizes that, surrender to the present reality or not, it’s going to happen as all realities are prone to do.  And while I’ve never experienced this extreme form of painful exhilaration in my own body, I imagine that this is the ultimate physical version of the process of addressing a question like this.  You can try to ignore it, but after a metaphorical nine months have passed, it may be time to address the reality that a metaphorical baby is about to be produced from your allegorical loins.  Otherwise, it can be terribly confusing.

And so it was with this moment.  There it was.  The question, covered in pocket lint and sprawled across the floor in a kind of I’ve-fallen-and-can’t-get-up moment.  And try as you might, you can’t unask a question.  My best friend refers to this sort of thing as the “turd in the punchbowl”.  And when someone lays a proverbial turd in the punchbowl, you can do your best to ignore it for the discomfort of addressing it.  But sooner or later your thirst gets the better of you and, knowing that you can now not drink from the punchbowl, it’s only a matter of time before you have to address the whole punchbowl thing.  Plus it’s just gross.

Pause.  I suppose it’s a little odd to refer to this question as a new baby, then immediately regard it as a turd.  I think we agree that this isn’t the loveliest dual metaphor.  But I do this because a question like this has all the qualities and possibilities of being either, or both at once.  So, as we do with all beautiful new babies and unlovely turds, we chose to address it.

I’m going to spare you the details of the actual conversation.  Besides, how we answered the question that night isn’t really the point.  The real point is, how will you answer the question?  Let me begin by offering this.

The reason that this question is so uncomfortable for many of us is that by addressing it, we’re really talking about pushing through fear.  And while many of us would also agree that fear is more imagined than real, it feels and acts upon our lives in a way that is completely, utterly opposite.  Further, for a lot of us fear is a great babysitter.  And by babysitter, I mean the Red Cross certified sort.  It more or less keeps us safe; prevents us from getting into any real trouble.  If we try to climb up on high things that ought not to be climbed upon, fear gently nags at us to stop climbing because, after all, we wouldn’t want to get hurt.  It’s just too risky, and whenever we get the notion to do anything risky at all, fear is right there to cluck its tongue loudly in our direction as if to say, “are you sure you ought to be doing that?” to which we reply, “Of course, you’re right.  What was I even thinking.”

Transition this idea to your life.  How has fear been there, like a faithful, worrisome authority figure in your life?  I mean, you know what you were made for, right?  You know that fire inside you that just won’t go out; that fire that drives you to have all sorts of unsafe ideas and what-ifs and wonderings about what life would look like if you were to just…but then before the question can even fully escape your lips, fear is right there to let you know that it probably wasn’t a good idea at all; that you should probably just go home and make some nachos and put on a movie.  It’s been a hard day after all.  And it doesn’t really take much coaxing for us to believe that whatever our idea was was a pretty awful one anyway; most of us are prone to believe that about ourselves anyhow.  All fear does is hint at what we already don’t believe about ourselves, however much we long to.  We do the rest.  But man, have you tasted these nachos?  Killer.  And yet, the next day or week or month or year, the question creeps back up.  But rather than treat it like the wise, kind old sage that it is, fear convinces us that it is really a thief or some criminal pervert, waiting to steal the joy, safety, and innocence that otherwise await for us in the everyday ordinary of our everyday ordinary.  We’re afraid to answer the question because it beckons us away from the safety of life as we know it, and into the dangerous unknown of life as we could know it.

Another reason, perhaps, is that by answering the question and forging into the unknown, we are forced to consider the possibility that we might fail.  In our present circumstance – in mine and in yours – we know how to operate, how to close shop at the end of the day, go home and do this or do that.  It’s familiar, and our chances of success in this scenario are optimal.  Depending how you define success, I suppose.  It is in this way that fear becomes our crutch such that whenever anybody so much as suggests “hey, why aren’t you running faster or doing this or that?”, the obvious reply that we now get to make is “wow, I’d love to.  But you see, I’ve got this crutch.” “Man, that sucks.”, they might say, to which we might reply in a there’s-not-a-lot-I-can-really-do-about-it sort of way, “yeah.  it does suck.”.  Then, as is the great thing about all crutches, we get to hobble along in life at our own pace and in our own direction feeling very justified and even heroic because, hey, we’ve got this crutch and we’re doing the best we can – probably much more than some non-crutchbearers, we add for extra emphasis.  You see, fear isn’t a babysitter here.  It’s our co-dependent.

Earlier this year, I went to an AA meeting.  I’m not an alcoholic.  And I don’t mean that in the way that true alcoholics who are in denial say it.  I mean, really, I’m not.  But my best friend is a recovering alcoholic who has not had a drop in over five years.  (Way to go!)  I was really intrigued about this part of his life and I wanted to be involved here.  I was also wondering what it might say about my own life, so I went to this meeting.  In a word?  Honesty.  Okay, that doesn’t do it justice.  Honesty on steroids.  These people were as hopped up on honesty as they used to be on alcohol.  And I loved it.  Loved it!  They had this raw, honest approach to life and reality that was so unbelievably refreshing and, well, honest.  And they, at least I assume most of them, were there because they had decided to drop the crutches, throw the crutches out, lose them altogether.  You could tell that some of them had only recently dropped their crutch and were now determined to beat the hell out of it, leaving no sign that there ever was a crutch.  For a now recovering fearaholic like me, it was like breathing pure oxygen.  For me, alcohol wasn’t my crutch.  Fear was.  What am I saying, fear still is my “ism”.  So I know all too well the way my former, now homeless co-dependent can squash you down and convince you that you’re not capable of living without it, for if you do you’ll surely get hurt.  By the way, I think everyone could benefit from going to an AA meeting; they exhibit exactly the kind of honesty that our culture sorely needs.

Fear is a great excuse for failing to do anything at all.  Which is why, as we stare at this question, we want to address it, but at the same time we don’t want to.  If you ask me, which you sort of did by deciding to read this blog, those are two defining qualities of any question that is really worth asking and answering.

I can’t answer the question for you.  Nobody can.  Nobody but you, that is.  (You thought you were off the hook.)  But for me, the answer generally looks like this.

I decided that for all the fears that I had felt over the course of the year, we had for the most part made it through.  We had never missed a meal.  Our mortgage, eventually, was paid in one way or another.  Our children were healthy, happy, and well-cared for.  True, our bank account was relatively empty as we hoped it would not be, but still we were on the upper side of things.  And though one might argue that there’s nothing at all relative about the numerical value zero, bank accounts notwithstanding, we had made it through and were reasonably happy.   But the “how” of how we made it through the year was unmistakably interesting.  We had worked hard, it’s true.  And that produced some of the money we needed to work through the year.  I need to mention here that I had also, for the most part, ignored any of the writing and art and music that defines the core of who I am.  In lieu of this essential part of me, I dedicated more time and energy to working and finding work, which in a tough economy was pretty touch and go at times.  What I found throughout the year was that sometimes my hard work paid off.  I would find a client willing to invest in my services.  But more often, either of the following two dynamics are what predominantly took place:  a)  I worked hard and chased leads to their end and it resulted in absolutely no business; or b) I did nothing more than answer a phone call and was then gifted with business for which I exerted no direct sweat to get whatsoever.  For the most part, this defined most of the year.

Toward the end of the year I began asking myself the question.  What indeed would I do if I wasn’t afraid?  After all, fear didn’t produce anything measurably better during the year.  In fact, I found that during times where I exerted no effort, business was provided to me and that during many times of hard labor, I produced nothing at all.  To my estimation we were, for the most part, cared for outside of my own doing.  This was especially true in the way friends showed up in our lives with this or that, helping us along the way in more ways than I can recount.  As I looked further back to previous years and further back still, I found this always to hold true regardless of what we had been doing at the time.  And while I wasn’t about to take this as a sign that I ought to stop doing anything at all, it struck me as a thing I ought to ponder for a bit.  At the end of that pondering is when I produced the question that had been lurking beneath the surface really my whole life.  What would you do if you weren’t afraid?  For if we were cared for outside of my own doing, and always had been, then wouldn’t it make some sense to consider for a moment that we might be free to kick fear to the curb and decide to at long last take some risks?  I decided, emphatically, yes.

I realize that I’m oversimplifying this in a broad sense, but the premise is nonetheless true. At least it has been for me.  So for me, I started writing more.  I started putting whatever song it was that I was hearing in my head out there for other people to hear.  I decided to have confidence in who I am and what I have to offer.  I decided to nurture relationships with others, since I was starting to learn about the importance of community (which is a pretty big step for an introverted, go-it-aloner).  I decided to have a lot more honest, open conversations with others about art, creativity, who we are, what we are meant to do, who God is, what we really believe, and by the way how we thought we should live in light of what we believe about ourselves, about others, and about God.  And you know what?  We’re still eating.  Our mortgage is still paid each month.  Our kids are still doing well.  The sun still rises and it still sets, same as it always has.  But something is different.  Me.

And so I wonder, what about you?  I know that deep down you wonder it too.  So how about it?  What would you do if you weren’t afraid?  I mean of anything at all.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

  1. David Hampton says:

    This is such great and challenging thinking! The whole need for excuses and the way we learn to depend on them to justify what is actually fear is great insight. It resonated deeply with me. Our addiction to fear is a pretty unique idea and the way you have given fear the personality of a taunting and debilitating voice is very easy to get our head around and see what is really going on. Keep it coming!

  2. the information on this article is really 1 of the most beneficial substance that I’ve at any time occur throughout. I really like your submit, I will appear again to examine for new posts.

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