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Nothing to Fear


I read that line again recently, the one that urges us to do something that scares us every day. Though I’ve seen that exhortation at least a dozen times, it was only this week that I realized what it really means to me. Before this, my mind has always gone to parachuting out of airplanes, or doing stand-up comedy, or holding a snake, none of which seemed like particularly practical activities on a daily basis. I’m not sure what was different this last time I saw this appeal, but it occurred to me that it could just mean getting out of my comfort zone.

It doesn’t truly frighten me to have to make small talk eight or 10 times a day, and it doesn’t give me chills to have to make a phone call about something in my house that isn’t working properly, but neither makes me feel comfortable. The thought of having to solve a stressful problem doesn’t petrify me, but I don’t love it. So I’m reading this advice now as a suggestion to just let myself be uncomfortable every day. On the surface, that sounds a bit ridiculous and I question the lasting value of intentionally torturing myself in this way. I’m 65 years old, for God’s sake. What good could it possibly do me to voluntarily make myself feel uneasy and antsy?

The most frightening thing out there ... is the stuff you make up.

But this new angle on self-imposed confidence-building stuck with me as I planned out my day, neatly folded the laundry and carefully put away the clean dishes from the dishwasher. It isn’t really running into someone I know at the grocery store that makes me want to turn around and go down a different aisle, it’s the idea of it. The conversations I end up having with someone I see as I’m sorting through Fuji apples are actually just fine. I mean it when I ask them about their kids, their jobs, whether Iceland was as beautiful as they thought it would be. We’re human beings making a connection; there is little else as lovely as that in the world. But in my mind, because I am a shy introvert, before they ever occur, these encounters dog me until I might even say that they scare me.

The same is true about having to solve a problem, whether it’s my own finances or someone else’s housing situation. In reality, I’m a creative, critical thinker and when a dilemma is placed in front of me, I’m as strategic about it as I am the New York Times crossword puzzle. But dangle the idea of a problem in front of me and I can almost instantly feel queasy about the possibility of the world as I know it falling apart. Besides making me realize how productive my imagination really is, this awareness has reminded me that what I think about and what actually happens are frequently direct opposites.

Though I pride myself on my practicality, I also believe that things happen for a reason. I don’t think there is any accident in the fact that I have come across this scaring myself advice so many times in my life. It’s like driving past a house in your neighborhood five or six times a week for years and then one day suddenly seeing those beautiful windows, the lovely angle of the roof. I do need to make myself uncomfortable every day, not by dragging myself through some situation I’ve deemed agonizing, but by admitting that it’s actually not.

When I think of the wide and lovely road I’m on, the one with all of these vistas and curves and exciting turns, it almost makes me laugh to think of how much time I have spent huddled in my car on the shoulder. Emotional and literal calculator in hand, I have devoted hours to penciling out the exact perfect scenarios so that none of the “horrific” scenarios I am capable of concocting can cross my path. None of this, I should add, has ever prevented much of anything from occurring, and all of it has managed to convince me that I must remain vigilant. Until today, that is, when some mysterious algorithm has tapped me on the shoulder and suggested ever so politely that I get over myself. “The most frightening thing out there,” it is saying, “is the stuff you make up.”

So I’m making a plan now for scaring myself on a regular basis, and here it is: Just go out there and meet the day. Keep your eyes open, look up, smile, remember that everyone is doing the best they can do, and be ever grateful that all of this is right here waiting.