When I was teaching high school, I had a young man named Steven in one of my classes who everyone suspected was a drug dealer. To me, though, Steven was this bright kid and what everyone else saw as cockiness, I read as fear. One day, after a few absences in a row, I asked him to step outside the classroom to talk to me while everyone was working quietly on a project. There, I called him on his fear.
“You blow off school,” I told him, “not because you don’t care, but because you are scared that if you show that you care and then don’t do well, it will tell you something. Well, I am hear to tell you that if you actually tried, you would never find out that you are not smart. You’ve got this. You are smart enough. You just need to show up.”
For whatever reason, this talk somewhat worked. Even though he often waited to arrive to school until it was time for my class and often left right after it was done, he came to my class. He did well. He passed the state exam. On that last day, I stopped him on his way out.
“You are smart,” I told him. “You have so much possibility in you. Don’t just show up for me because I cornered you. Show up for you.”
For whatever sad reason, Steven thought his success in my class was a one time thing. A few years later, I saw him on the news. Arrested in a shoplifting ring. I cried when I saw his mug shot. I hadn’t done enough to quiet his fear, to make him aware that the core of who he was was good and that he simply needed to acquire the necessary skills to get himself the life he imagined- legally. I hadn’t said the words that would make him quit making the small choice, the words that would have encouraged him to expand into his full possibilities.
Fear- the fear we have of taking a leap- is like that. It lies to us. It tells us we don’t have what we need inside of us. Because, mostly, it doesn’t want us to be disappointed. It doesn’t want us to try too hard and not get anything from that effort. Fear thinks it is better to live small because that is safe. But what fear doesn’t understand is that is not how life has to work.
Maybe we will get something different from our efforts than what we thought. I got my MFA in Creative Writing because I wanted to be a better high school teacher. I never formally made my way back to a high school classroom. I also went to get my MFA in poetry. While I specialized in poetry and non-fiction, I haven’t written a poem since I graduated a decade ago. If I let my fear have the floor, it would tell me that I failed because I am neither a poet nor a high school teacher. That I should never have gotten that MFA, gone into that debt (thankfully, it was long ago paid off), because what I said would come true did not. And, yet, every good thing that has happened since my MFA happened because of my MFA experience. I just had no idea to dream this way when I got started.
And that’s just the thing about fear. Fear has little eyes, not much foresight, a narrow view. It can only see what it wants to see and it will taunt you with that small mindedness over and over again, in an effort to keep you safe. But fear- the way it incites panic- is fundamentally unsafe so it knows nothing about safety. Fear is a panic room, designed to keep you insulated. You’ll be safe, in theory. But is existing in 8 by 10 feet of static space really existing?
When I was in college, I was riddled with fear. Once a dear friend told me that he feared I would look back at the end of my life and only have regrets and no memories because I lived in such a fear-based way. His words woke me up.
And I want them to wake you up. What are you most afraid of realizing, of doing, of achieving? What do you secretly want but deliberately stifle? A new year is approaching. A deliberate start is coming. Can you feel the fear and live your dream anyway? Can you give up small and expand into the life you were meant to have?
I hope you will.