Fear is dead. I killed it.

December 12, 2011

The earliest chunk of about-page copy for Fear.less explained that the magazine was “our answer to an emergency”. We used urgent words to describe what we saw as a widespread anxiety, people universally doubting that they could ever really live on their own terms. Panic, epidemic, that sort of thing.

Now I am finding that this doesn’t describe what I’m feeling. Back in Fear.less’s early days, I was about to graduate from college and then pay monthly for that college, so there was a tsunami of uncertainty looming on the horizon, and eventually it would reach the shore and smash me in the face. And it did. You know how the old scream goes: WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH MY LIIIIIIIFE?

But now I have a job, the bills are being paid. The failure to do this was the totality of my fears over the past four years, and now it is gone. The tsunami came and then the waters receded, and now there isn’t any defined danger watching me from the farthest corner of the earth. Sure, ~*there is no job security in this economy*~, but worrying about that is like worrying about a sudden brain aneuryusm. Any drastic tragedy now will have been a lot less inevitable (at least as far as my expectations are concerned) than graduation and the following job hunt were a year ago.

So what I feel now, it’s not really right to call it fear. It’s very quiet, and weird, and something else.

Have you seen Toy Story 3? It was excellent. It explores what happens to these living toys as the world they have come to know – a world in which their owner is interested in them – falls apart. Their kid is going off to college. Things are going to change. As I was watching it, I thought, this is a great movie, and it tells the kind of story we can all envision. But what happens in Toy Story 10? What is the final destination of a soul that lives a toy life? We’ll never know, partially because Pixar would have to make 7 more films to get there and partially because it’s really hard to imagine, because everything would change. Would it be a super stark Kafkaesque-type thing, where after decades forgotten in their twelfth owner’s attic, the toys become deranged, certain that someone is coming back for them someday? Or would it be grim and pulpy, with a tattered Woody and Buzz traipsing across a dump with absolutely no obvious purpose to their existence? Sounds like a hit.

That’s kind of where I am. The old stories don’t really make sense anymore. To resolve this, I turn to one of my favorite descriptions of Resistance, from Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. (The book features many little descriptions in this format, but this one is the best.) You know what Resistance is because all of us self-helpers talk about it. It’s that voice inside your head that says you suck.

RESISTANCE IS INSIDIOUS

Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole. Resistance is protean. It will assume any form, if that’s what it takes to deceive you. It will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man. Resistance has no conscience. It will pledge anything to get a deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned. If you take Resistance at its word, you deserve everything you get. Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.

The gift that Steven gives us by writing this accusatory, frenzied paragraph is that he is willing to confront the idea that inside all of us lives the most evil and conniving son of a bitch in the universe. The Voice will bully and manipulate, yes, but it will also do even more stuff you never thought of or planned for and then ruin you because, haha, you weren’t prepared. And if you thought it wasn’t realistic or sensible to prepare for it, well, joke’s on you, because it was. You weren’t paying attention, and you lost. That’s why people get promoted, published, powerful, buff, rich and married, and still empty. No matter what improvements you make to yourself, The Voice will always give 110% effort into formulating an argument that will convince you that life blows. The Voice wrote and directed Toy Story 10.

(I sneakily replaced Resistance with Voice there because until Pressfield/Godin/etc. I had always associated the word “resistance” with resilience and refusal to be conquered, i.e. positive things. The Voice sounds line an incorporeal Marvel villain, so that’s what I go with.)

So this, I think, is what I’m going through. Over the past couple years, reading and editing and writing the Fear.less stuff, I’d like to think I’d improved at refuting The Voice, and when my glorious adult life started, it would die. Well, a lot more than that died. I would get home from work and be like, “Do I want to write? Not really. Why? Uh, eh.”

Hmm. Sun Tzu famously said “know your enemy” in his book whose title Steven Pressfield switched some words around in for his own book. So what is The Voice doing to try and shut me down? Pressfield lists above a pretty diverse skill set: lie, betray, tease, threaten. But sometimes, oh, sometimes, The Voice just shuts the hell up.

So… what? What is the answer here? How do you counter an attack that never comes? How do you blog about a feeling that no longer barks dark prophecies at you every day? The Voice is almost necessary as a compass to guide your actions. You could argue that anything done in opposition to the voice is categorically a good decision.

When the insidious inner voice is silent, it really just wants to trick you into thinking you’ve won, so you don’t make an effort to reach beyond the bare minimum. But the most dangerous enemy is the one that you don’t even know is there.

Well, I know you’re there! I did not really kill it, it’s just playing possum, and if that makes me stop hunting, then I lose. The evil suggestion The Voice is making is that life should not be a continuous upward journey, that I should be content to just lay low awhile creatively, mentally and emotionally. There are many, many ways to move upward in life, it’s not always or even usually by attaining traditional success. Between Sun Tzu’s “know your enemy” and the ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself”, it seems a good strategy may be to always keep apprised of the constantly-changing wrestling match between these two forces, The Voice and the Self, that live in one human being. And to keep the Self enriched, to keep it stocked with resources, challenges, experiences and preparations against the most unconscionable campaigns of Self-destruction.

My grandpa recently sent me a whole bunch of monthy letters from The Royal Bank of Canada’s head office, written in the 1970s by an unspecified person. They are basically a longer version of Fear.less and more classically honoUrable/civically dutiful/prep-schooly; it’s kind of refreshing. Grandpa reviews them every so often for inspiration and thought I might like to see them. There’s one from 1986 called “Learning for Our Times” that ends with a pretty sweet and relevant quote.

As long as you can keep on learning, you will never know an empty day.

I learned something. I didn’t really kill fear, I just made it reincarnate into something completely different. Just because a human can’t do that, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch out for it.

photo by Howard Dickins

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Adam Winstead December 28, 2011 at 9:56 am

This absolutely blew my mind! Like you, I’ve recently been faced with paying off student loans and the fear encapsulated in that can be daunting. Thank you for writing this piece and for encouraging those of us out there who face fear everyday but are determined to move forward.
-Wow!!

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