“Your fear is 100% dependent on you for its survival.” ~ Steve Maraboli
If we placed our fears in a petri dish and the universe asked what it needed in order to survive, we all know the short and long of it – it’s us. We’ve seen the Pinterest boards and Facebook quotes. We get it. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and we must do the things we think we cannot do. If only our understanding of fear somehow brought feeling back to the paralyzed consciousness it creates.
Just because we get why we’re afraid, doesn’t make our feelings less so. A child’s fear of monsters under the bed won’t lose validity when the lights turn on. They’re relieved when discovering the monsters don’t exist, but their fear was always real.
As we get older, the monsters morph into tangible worries like having enough money, making life changing decisions and to top off the insomnia trifecta, being in good mental and physical health.
Although fear is universal, our own struggles narrow the scope and they become much more crystallized within the walls of our story. Each of us has our path, and it’s always walked alone. Our compass is built from life experience, the realization of who we are (which only comes from letting go of who we pretend to be), and the choices we make based on how we handle fear.
Fear is fucked. No one really talks about it, because the more we talk about it, the more it exists. Also, with fear lives vulnerability. It’s a he-said-she-said trap of “I know you are, but what am I”; fear points the finger at vulnerability, while vulnerability blames its very existence on fear. It’s six of one, half-dozen of shit, making us feel weak and alone. So we bury them both, deep inside ourselves, hoping bravado serves as our cloak of armor.
Once we realize this – our perception shifts. Instead of feeling envy for those who [we think] have their shit together, we suddenly recognize parts of ourselves among the people around us. It’d be a much different world if we all realized the connections in which we live are through this maze of dysfunction and fear, buried deep in the underbelly of having it all.
Which brings me to a story of someone I know (we’ll call him Nicky). Nicky hangs within my circle of trust (and after an all-night jam session with him about fear, has earned mad props in my personal, dysfunctional fear-based wheelhouse).
We started talking about fear, and the conversation that transpired was illuminating.
“It keeps us from being who we are and who we wish to be.” He explained. “Fear is what keeps us from promotion. Fear is what keeps us from our true potential. Fear is everywhere.” His voice was solid. “The question is – how do we deal with it?”
“The biggest critic in life is us.” I replied.
“I know.” My head, nodding in agreement.
“The problem is – what do we get from our job? The money? Fulfillment? Or both? Money has a heavy price tag – which means my efforts have a heavy price tag, which means this job has a heavy price tag.”
“I may not have children. I may not have a wife. But I have people who I support. The reason I do what I do isn’t because I’m weak. It’s not because I’m incapable. It’s because I’m tapped. And it’s all out of fear.”
In Nicky’s case, what was wringing him dry was his fear of making a fair request with his employer. Having just completed another string of 18 hour days (22 days with no time off, to be exact), he was teetering on the edge of classic burn out – a mental breakdown.
I could see he had more to say.
“‘I need two days off’ – this is the phrase that will galvanize a defining moment for me. We have the right to earn our moments. We have the right to fair wage. We have right. This is not merely two days off. It’s an opportunity to earn my life back.” His voice was trembling. “The same people we’re trying to earn for, we are sacrificing our time with. We fall on the sword so they don’t see it coming. This creates imbalance. The imbalance of simply being human.”
By now, I was taking notes, and he realized our conversation would make its way to my blog.
“There’s your blog.” He laughed, throwing his hands down, as if dropping a microphone and walking off the stage. He watched me type feverishly on the keys.
“It’s what I do.” I threw him knowing laughter, continuing to type.
Whether we carry the weight of expectation with the people we support financially, or simply because we want to kick ass at our new job – there’s only so much we can take until the levity of our struggle knocks us the fuck out.
Less than a week after our conversation, that’s exactly what happened. After eight months of working on fumes, Nicky, paralyzed with fear, broke down. Not by asking for a fair work schedule, but by allowing his pendulum to swing in the other direction. He let go, pressing his fuck-it switch and had a full-blown meltdown. Because he suffers clinical depression, he stayed down – for days.
I didn’t learn of this development until he confessed after the fact – and after I badgered him for disappearing (as a fellow depressive, falling off the radar is hauntingly familiar).
What happened with his employer, Nicky would tell you is completely unfair and he’s not entirely wrong. But what I think is a twist of fate in how the universe handles our delicate souls when suffering, I believe it’s a gift. By all accounts, not showing up for work for days would justify termination. On the same token, what drove him to his breakdown was an inhumane (and I’m pretty sure illegal) work schedule.
Nicky wasn’t fired. Instead, his boss offered him a demoted position (with a huge salary decrease). He’s also required to re-visit a mental health professional to help sleigh is personal dragons, which opens up a whole new file on our Personal Fears desktop.
One of the hardest things to face is who we are as a result of where we’ve been.
Nicky and I have much in common. Like so many of us, the cloth from which we’re cut is from the same, fucked up tapestry of abuse and neglect. Each of our stories is a brick thrown down on our road Oz.
It’s no picnic, having to lift these bricks of why and how (can you imagine being required to do so by your employer?). The good news is that Nicky still has his job – and demotion or not, it’s a call for contribution and a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
We may not be working our dream jobs, but there’s tremendous honor in knowing our work is valued. Whether we sweep floors, work a drive-through, or push paper for The Man, what we do is making a difference (if Nicky wasn’t valued, he’d be collecting unemployment, living with one of the big Three’s of fear – not having a job).
I know Nicky feels that he ‘lost’ somehow, by being demoted, and although I feel his plight, I see the up side. He’s showing up for work – head high, walking tall, navigating through office chatter and judgment (this reminds me of waiting tables in my 20’s in a place where my high school bullies used to frequent). He doesn’t see it now, but his actions are building a solid foundation of self-worth (that neither one of us received in childhood). This serves him well in his current situation, and is exactly what will carry him over to his next career opportunity.
How we manage our shitty circumstances in the present always lays the ground work for how we kick ass tomorrow.
There’s something to be said for character-building experiences born from humility, and Nicky’s story is no different. He’s taught me many things through example and the latest is this: with all the fear we struggle with in life – there’s nothing braver than simply showing up.