When she was eight years old, Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat Pray Love) was so upset by the ocean that she begged her parents to get everyone out of the surf and back onto their towels, where they belonged. She was, by her own admission, afraid of everything—the dark, the deep end, babysitters, board games, grass, you name it.
I can relate. When I was eight, I didn’t like swimming in the ocean, and didn’t love the pool, especially with lots of other people in it. I was afraid of amusement parks and diving boards and going anywhere without my mother. I was terrorized by bees, and bugs, and dogs. When urged to go out and play, I famously responded, “What good is a house if you can’t stay in it?”
In her new book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Gilbert says that despite all the attention we give fear (and we give it a lot), the real turning point for her was when she realized the fear not only didn’t define her, but if it did, she was a real snooze:
“Around the age of fifteen, I somehow figured out that my fear had no variety to it, no depth, no substance, no texture. I noticed that my fear never changed, never delighted, never offered a surprise twist or an unexpected ending. My fear was a song with only one note–only one word…and that word was ‘STOP!'” My fear never had anything more interesting or subtle to offer than that one emphatic word, repeated at full volume on an endless loop: ‘STOP STOP STOP STOP!'”
Not only that, she writes, but what’s worse is that fear was not only one-note and predictable, but it was just like everyone else’s. There’s literally nothing interesting about that. And yet for years, she says, she fixated on her fear as if it were the most interesting thing about her. Fear isn’t the most interesting thing about anyone.
Part of what I do, for a living, is to help other people make themselves and their messages more compelling. And yet, people fight me on it, try to convince me of why they can’t do it, and it’s because of fear, of course. Often it feels as if I’m a personal organizer and their fears are a set of broken beach chairs they simply won’t part with. I know they think I don’t hear them or don’t understand, but in fact I do. I know it too well.
Fear is not a problem to be solved, because by design it never will be; fear has its own survival tactics, dirty ones at that. At its most extreme, it can paralyze us, and at lower levels, it worries at our edges, making us more and more dull.
Here’s the truth: Fear doesn’t make any of us stronger, better, or more lovable. But what if instead of clinging to fear as a life preserver, keeping our heads above the unknown, we saw it for what it is: A millstone around our necks, dragging us to the very depths of boring, to the lowest common denominator of our personalities. Because that’s what it is.
So, no, you don’t want or need to get rid of fear entirely. You can’t, and you shouldn’t. When Gilbert embarks on a creative journey, fear comes along for the ride, but it does not get to drive. It doesn’t even get to touch the radio. But if you wait for your fear to stop doing its job so you can do yours, you’ll be idling there a long time.