Can you have fear without love?
Memorial Day is special here. The bright sun finally beats back the rain and snow. The small town parade brings too loud motorcycles and too large trucks rolling down Main Street in a scene that could just as easily be 1945 as 2023. The backyard barbecues bring everyone out of their social hibernation. It’s the beginning of summer. At least mental summer, if not the actual season. Whether it’s tourists exploring our mountain town, families moving to summer homes to work closer to nature, or locals bringing out their mountain bikes and river rafts, people are out. I sit at our local coffee shop and listen. “What are you doing these days? How are things going?” I want to dismiss these conversations as superficial posturing. But as I listen closer, I start to notice something else. Something honest. Something I can love.
I hear fear.
I didn’t always love fear. In fact, I hated being afraid. Haunted houses and scary movies were never my thing. I still hate scary movies. I despise the engineered tension riffing off our ancient fear of the monster – the lighting, the music, the two dimensional characters, the blood, guts, and gore all tuned to just the right effect to maximize a cheap rush of adrenaline. I don’t understand how people can find that fun. It just feels cheap.
What I hear is real fear. Deep, penetrating, paralyzing, beautiful fear.
I was recently sitting on a Zoom call with eight aspiring writers. One of them, let’s call her Alexa, was stuck. She hadn’t written in weeks and didn’t know why. Like any good goal-setting rock star, she declared that if she could just figure out the why behind her own writing, this grand vision held on high would keep the resistance out and let the light in. We wanted to help, so we all shared what kept us writing.
Only later did it hit me. We weren’t actually helping her. She didn’t need a vision. She needed to face her fear.1
Fear creeps up in my conversations – and my lack of conversations. I’d rather be alone than deal with another awful conversation about investments or corporate strategy or career goals. That’s fear. I could steer the conversation to how I relate to my budding spirituality, what storytelling could mean in that, my search for a life beyond the 9 to 5 of corporate life. Sure, I’d have to figure out how to explain that I’m not really working and I don’t have a goal. Maybe I’d have to let them see the darkness. Hell, I could just point them to Why Does There Always Have To Be A Next. That’s why I wrote it. But I’m afraid of being rejected, of having this friend who I once related to crush my budding beautiful moment through a thoughtless comment that doesn’t really mean anything to him but means everything to me. So I could steer the conversation that way, but I don’t.
It comes out on the page. 2,000 crappy words and zero good thoughts. I fidget, type and delete the same phrase hundreds of times, and anxiously run from my computer to the fridge as I search for some escape that looks oddly like the two week old lasagna hidden in the back corner. Food poisoning sounds wonderful compared to another hour of writing crappy work. That’s fear too. It’s the fear that I’ll never be able to write anything good. I’ll never be good enough.
I think all of us who want to do creative work feel this fear. And isn’t that everyone at some point?
This fear comes up time and again. It came up for 13 year old me when I cried after failing to tell a scary story around the campfire. I tried so hard. Halfway through my “story” my friends said “Dude, stop already. This is really bad.” I vowed never to be rejected like that again. That’s 26 years of missed opportunities. It comes as I near 40, wanting to leave a trail for my children through my writing. I want to embody the wise old man archetype and guide others to a better life, but sometimes the words just don’t come. It’s all the same fear. I’m a slow learner.
But here’s the thing about this fear: there’s no way to avoid it. I have to wrestle with it, experiment with it, inquire about it, sit with it, and let life emerge from it. Otherwise, it will find a new way to come back.
Recently, I realized something beautiful. I saw fear for what it really is. I saw love.
I realized fear doesn’t come out of nowhere. When I got deeply, existentially scared, I saw what I loved. It took me sitting on my cushion, so deep in a meditative state that I experienced my own death as my body turned to nothing, to finally learn the lesson. I cried. I begged. I fought with all the fury I knew how to save myself. It wasn’t what you’d call a proud moment. But it taught me what I needed to learn. I saw the faces of my family. I wasn’t scared of not being in this place, I was scared of losing the anchor to the people I love.
I started to see the lesson everywhere. Those conversations I don’t have because I’m afraid that a rejection might kill my blossoming dream? I love this dream of what my life could be. My writing that feels like it’s not going anywhere? I love the moment I publish something I’m really proud of. My judgment of my own progress on this spiritual path? I love the peace when I’m seeing clearly. And the things I’m not scared of aren’t me being brave. They just don’t mean as much to me.
Sitting in this coffee shop, the man with the shoulder length brown hair and 1970s mustache is talking a little too loudly. He knows that everyone can hear him over Post Malone on the speakers when he brags about his investment returns. But this time, I hear “I’m scared that I won’t measure up to others.” His friend, a self proclaimed coffee connoisseur who just told the barista how much pressure he likes in the pull of his double espresso, deftly acknowledges the brag while he changes the subject to the three job offers he has. I’m pretty sure he actually admitted, “I’m scared that I don’t know what to do next.”
Some day they’ll both just say that. But until then, the mountain air and the sunshine are their own kind of honesty.
My why has changed so many times. I thought I was writing about my startup. I thought I was writing about ideas, science, or philosophy. Today, I think I’m writing to give people a chance to experience spirituality with me. It’s emotional and spiritual healing in a rational world. But tomorrow’s why could emerge anew.