One day, when I was a child, I was out fishing offshore with my father and brother. On our way back towards land, we stopped to jump in the water and cool off. I was standing on the back of the boat with my younger brother right next to me… milliseconds from jumping in… and a large shark surfaced right before our eyes. It swam right up to the back of our boat then disappeared into the depths of the ocean. I was immediately filled with fear.
What if I had already jumped in?
What would have happened?
Worse – what if my brother had already jumped in?
What would I have seen happen?
And so a fear was born.
I love the ocean. I love looking at it and even more, I love being out on it. But I don’t love being in it. I am still filled with the fears born that day on the water – in my mind, sharks are everywhere. They could surface in an instant… and potentially take something that is most precious to me. My life. My family.
It sucks. Sometimes I watch people standing out in the ocean – way farther out than I would be comfortable (which is barely waist deep) – and I’m jealous of them. I think of how peaceful it would be to stand out there, the waves lapping around me, looking out into nothing but vast blue water… and not feel super anxious I’m going to lose a leg at any moment. I think I would even enjoy learning to surf. But I can’t stop my mind from thinking that a person on a surfboard looks like a seal, which means one thing – attack! At least, that’s what years and years of watching Shark Week has taught me.
And that’s the funny thing… as much as I am afraid of sharks, I’m also fascinated by them. Perhaps that isn’t a coincidence. Maybe we are more connected to our fears than we realize.
I have another big fear – rejection. This one is slightly more complicated than a terrifying, toothy animal and sadly isn’t confined to large bodies of water. This fear has no limitations… and I’m unable to pinpoint the day it arrived in my psyche.
I’ve only recently realized the role it has played in my life. I now see I made countless choices… and didn’t make countless others… all out of fear of rejection. From how I spent my days to how I spent my nights, the driving force was always acceptance. Acceptance by my family. Acceptance by my friends. Acceptance by society.
And walking alongside that acceptance was avoidance. Avoiding possible failure. Avoiding being different. Avoiding my true feelings. All around avoiding the really tough stuff… like the road less traveled.
And where did that get me? It left me feeling uninspired, disconnected, restless… it left me feeling bleh. Maybe that’s the byproduct of playing it safe. Maybe avoiding our fears ultimately lands us stuck on the shore instead of enjoying the waves.
But what if our fears are actually an important part of us that shouldn’t be avoided? What if they hold the key to the life we really want… to who we are meant to be?
Finding that key isn’t exactly a fun process. You uncover it only by asking why after why regarding your unfulfilled desires and unpleasant feelings… the imperfections of your life. And in doing that you realize that all your answers… all your reasons… lead to an underlying, deep-rooted, life-altering fear.
It is the reason you are afraid to apply for a certain job. Afraid to pursue a certain passion. Afraid to tell someone how you feel. Afraid to face how you really feel. All our fears – no matter how small – have a root.
My shark fear is easy. That clearly boils down to a fear of death… which I imagine is a universal fear.
But my path to realizing my fear of rejection wasn’t quite as straight. It wasn’t until I was really, really, brutally honest with myself answering my why after why regarding certain twists and turns in my life that I saw the source. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to be normal. I wanted to be cool. All to avoid being rejected.
And then I was faced with what to do with that realization. How to overcome it. How to free myself from it. How to use the key.
Too often, if we aren’t avoiding our fears, we are discrediting them. No Fear. Fear Less. Fear Not. Have No Fear. These are the taglines of our lives – our goal towards this unwanted emotion. We attempt to look the other way, push it down, ignore it… anything to overcome it.
But maybe that isn’t doing it justice. Maybe we need to first acknowledge it, then sit with it for a second – almost honor it – before we push through it. And in that moment, seek to understand it, recognizing the role it has played in our lives and who we could be without it.
Perhaps it isn’t about doing things despite our fear… but rather doing things with our fear. And only then can we set it free… as opposed to suppressing it, only to have it return with a vengeance.
In that regard, fear does not come with a “Do Not Enter” sign. There is no caution tape. It is more like an “Enter Here” sign… showing us the path to the root of our unhappiness. The things holding us back from living the life we truly want to live.
Every step I take down that path – every moment I open my heart more, every choice I make just for me – is surrounded by fear. I don’t pretend it’s not there. Rather I now almost appreciate it, knowing it’s a sign that I’m heading in the right direction. Knowing I’m getting closer to the root. Each step is a step further away from the shore… and closer to the waves of the life I want.