Updated on April 14, 2016
I’ve heard it said that the way you welcome the New Year sets the tone for the next 365 days. I welcomed in 2016 asleep in a pool of sweat, while a growing crowd of people clamored outside my window, shouting loudly as they set off a stream of [what I’m certain were] illegal fireworks.
Despite my prayer that the New Year would not be a reflection of that “eventful” night, I’m not sure I got the answer I sought…at least not yet. See, the three months since that time have been extremely uncomfortable—full of waiting, full of questioning, and most of all, full of fear.
Anxiety and fear have always played a part in my life, but of late, fear has taken center stage and I can’t help but think it has something to do with “25.”
* * * * * *
25. I’ve kept that number close for a while now.
Nine years ago, I sat in a conference room full of parents and teens, eyes fixed on the screen before us. The topic: driving safety. Timed to pictures of twisted cars and mangled bodies, rang the tearful voices of parents who had lost children and teenagers and young adults who had lost friends. Their loved ones had suffered premature and gruesome deaths…deaths ultimately the result of immature minds unable to fully evaluate risk and make sound decisions. At 15 years of age, I too had an immature mind.
As I watched the broken-hearted speakers search for words…any words…between deep sighs, I made a mental note of two things: (1) driving was scary and must be avoided at all cost (I’ll come back to this later), and (2) I had ten years of freedom until my mind would “fully mature” and I would no longer have an excuse to put off being a “real” adult…
…the ten years that had once seemed like an eternity were quickly drawing to a close…the reality of adulthood was right around the corner.
Now nearing my 24th birthday and already sensitive to the rapidly diminishing timeline ahead of me, I couldn’t help but be aware of the changes that were taking place within me (within my prefrontal cortex to be exact): improved attention span, self-discipline and memory, as well as the greater ease with which I made decisions and assessed risk.
And then there was the fear.
Although not considered to be a sign of brain development by neuroscientists, I dismissed my heightened fear as a healthy by-product of my maturity and rationalized its many benefits. After all, to my thinking, it was fear that now alerted me to the risks women face in patriarchal societies…it was fear that now caused me to be distrustful of questionable characters…it was fear that now prevented me from naively entering into sketchy situations (such as getting into an unmarked car in Nepal at 4AM with two locals to drive up a mountain, the only sign of life being the chirping of birds and the chanting of monks)…and it was this same fear that now insulated me from ending up as a character in an Edgar Allen Poe short story (he did have a wild imagination…).
I was able to repeatedly convince myself of the “benefits” of fear. That is, until I arrived in Costa Rica at the end of 2015.
* * * * * *
Christmas 2015, longing for lands yet to be explored and some much-needed sibling bonding time, my brothers and I decided to go “somewhere.” Two days later, we found ourselves in the airport, on our way to the jungles of Costa Rica. With a head full of ideas rather than set-in-stone plans, I couldn’t help but worry. Even the familiar sense of “belonging” I had acquired during a year of international travel and too many airports to count soon departed, much like the many passersby hurrying to catch their flights. As we waited in snaking lines to get through the security checkpoint, a sense of dread crept over me, replacing the sense of belonging. I had yet to board the plane and I was already eager to return to the country I repeatedly claimed “wasn’t for me.” That uncharacteristic feeling was the first sign that something was very wrong.
The signs continued throughout the day. On the flight, as we drew closer to the lush green hills of our destination, I lost my breath and couldn’t seem to get it back until we landed, safely navigated the three hour winding drive to our hostel and settled into the cramped and moldy room. However, even then, I didn’t quite feel like myself, and with only a one hour time-difference, I could hardly blame it on jet-lag. An unwelcome shadow traced my every step, and unlike Peter Pan, I couldn’t wait to find a seam-ripper to free myself from it.
That week in “paradise,” I anxiously waited for things to go wrong…and they did: our tour guide didn’t pick us up on time (or at all)…we were stuck in the middle of the jungle without any means for locating a taxi…our second hostel never received our reservation, leaving us without a room as the sun began to set…we got lost more than once trying to use the public buses (yes, plural) to navigate the large and unsafe city…just to name a few. And I took each and every instance to be confirmation that something even worse was about to happen. To say the least, everything was NOT “pura vida.”
It had become a game of “What Could Go Wrong Next?” The anticipation was excruciating, and while my outward appearance may not have reflected the inner-turmoil I felt, I was sure my heart was going to burst and I would be left in a pool of my own tears. I didn’t understand the smiles that were plastered on my [22 year old] brothers’ faces. Did they not sense that life as we knew it would soon be over? How could they talk about the amazing casado we had for dinner the night before, the waterfall rappelling adventures of that afternoon, or the sloths and wildlife we hoped to see the next day? There were more pressing concerns to be dealt with.
What had happened to my sense of adventure? I was always the first to scale rocky walls, ride the largest and most powerful waves, jump from the greatest heights, and explore uncharted territory without a plan or purpose. I had never felt THIS fear before. Despite suffering from anxiety my entire life, I don’t think I fully understood its lack of regard for my freedom or my sanity until that trip to Costa Rica. Without so much as a hesitation, it robbed me of the part of myself I held most dear. My hunger for adventure had become overpowered by something else entirely: my hunger for complacency.
Even after safely returning home to the land of comfort a week later, fear still clung to me. Afraid of everyone and everything, I spent days without leaving my house. Suddenly my world became very small and what ifs ran rampant. The fear of driving that was sparked at that conference nine years earlier came back with a vengeance (what if I got into an accident?…what if someone died because of a mistake I made?…what if I myself became a statistic?). In addition, as ridiculous as it may seem, I was afraid to check emails or go online (what if an email contained bad news?…what if I discovered someone had intentionally ignored my message?…what if my inbox read “0” and confirmed my suspicion that I was insignificant and invisible?). I even became obsessed with whether or not I was adding enough commas in my writings (what if readers didn’t pick up on my tone and [subtle] dry humor?…what if they misunderstood me and rejected my new-found voice?).
Within a few weeks, this fear had seeped into every area of my life. While I had somehow managed to deal with the paralysis of my voice for 18 years, the paralysis of my spirit was more than I could bear. I began to question my skills, abilities, and worth (not that worth should EVER be contingent on the presence or absence of fear) and couldn’t see a future ahead of me. It was all I could do to breathe deeply and recite Sylvia Plath’s words, “I am, I am, I am.”
* * * * * *
Living in a place of fear is unhealthy and extremely dangerous. I’m learning that when fear consumes you so much so that it robs you of your voice, it’s time to pause, breathe deeply, and examine and re-evaluate your life. It’s time to remember who you are.
Fear will tell you you’re not good enough, and that despite your experiences or any concept of a master-plan, you’ll never be good enough. Fear will tell you that no matter how much you try to succeed, you’ll only fail…again…and again. Fear will tell you that your existence is inconsequential and the world will be just fine without you. At least that’s what fear was telling me.
See, there’s this picture of a tiny pale blue dot—in fact, it’s called “Pale Blue Dot.” Taken on February 14th, 1990 (perhaps a Valentine from NASA?), it’s a picture of the Earth from 3.7 billion miles away:
Look at Earth. Do you feel small and insignificant? I do.
But fear’s power lies in its constant barrage of lies…and the more I paused, took deep breaths, and re-examined my life, the more I couldn’t help but think that fear didn’t know what it was talking about.
Let me explain. Look down at your hands…your fingertips. Trace the curves, the highs and lows, the “whorls,” “loops,” and “arches”…get lost in them. Do you realize that not a single one of the billions of other people residing on that tiny blue dot shares those exact designs? Not one. Despite the lies that fear has been telling you, there is not one person who can take your place. It’s impossible.
You were born because you matter to Someone.
In fact, you are a miracle.
I’m not just throwing out beautiful words that will soon fade and leave you with a sense of emptiness; I have statistical proof. In a 2011 study, Dr. Ali Binazir determined that the chances of you even being born are one in 1^2,685,000 (you do the math…after all, it was never one of my strong points). To put that in perspective, 1^80 atoms exist in the universe (yes, the universe). Still having trouble grasping the magnitude of those odds? The odds of you being born are the same as the odds of the entire population of San Diego (about 2.5 million people) playing a game of dice, each person rolling a trillion-sided die and each landing on the same exact number (Binazir).
One in 1^2,685,000…you are NOT an exemption.
Still believe those lies fear has been telling you? Close your eyes and think of someone you hold dear. Think of your relationship with them. Whether a friend, relative, co-worker, or even a new acquaintance, your paths aligned for a Reason. In “It’s A Wonderful Life” fashion, imagine your life without them. Pullin’ at your heartstrings? Let’s take it a step further: You are also someone’s George Bailey (whether you want to believe it or not).
Despite what fear is telling you, Dr. Seuss had it right: there are oh so many places for you to go. There are still people for you to meet, there are still things for you to accomplish, and there are still lives for you to change (you read that right—you can change someone’s life).
Actually, you were born to change someone’s life.
As Fred Rogers once said, “If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”
You are more than the fears that take up residence in your body. You can do more than you give yourself credit for…I can do more than I give myself credit for. Even when I’m afraid of driving, I force myself to get behind the wheel. Even when I’m afraid of checking emails, I force myself to open them (even if it does take me a few days). And those commas…well, isn’t that what proof-reading is for?
Don’t trust all the “ROAD CLOSED” signs that fear puts in your path. Fear is a liar and most times you’ll discover that the closed roads were merely detours; you can navigate the potholes without too much effort and a bit of Faith. If it seems too daunting to head into the rubble, slow down. Take a companion. Just get moving. When everything’s not “pura vida” (as they so fondly say in Costa Rica), it’s not the end of the road…it simply means not yet. Not yet have you learned all there is to learn. Not yet have you arrived.
There is beauty in the not yet.
Don’t let fear deprive you of that beauty. Don’t let “what ifs” run rampant. Just as one night shouldn’t define your entire year, neither should the overpowering feelings of fear and inadequacy keep you from living the life you were born to live…the life I was born to live…
…and 25? It’s got nothin’ on me.