Friday, October 14, 2011

The Year of Shedding Fear

WHEN I was little, I was afraid I’d grow up to be a smoker.  Really, whenever adults warned me about some terrible potential future situation, I would worry about that exact thing happening. 

“Cigarettes are highly addictive and highly poisonous.”  Tim worries about somehow ending up as a smoker, despite being repulsed by cigarettes.

“An unwanted pregnancy means the end of your life as a free individual.”  Tim worries about knocking someone up.

“Ten years from now a large asteroid will have a one-in-ten-thousand chance of hitting the Earth.”  Tim worries about the extinction of humanity.

“Most people work jobs they don’t like / Men all have mid-life crises / Marriages are all unhappy / If you don’t do everything the right way you’ll never have opportunities in life / All these fools get sucked into empty materialism / etc. etc. etc.”  Tim worries about waking up at age 40 and realizing he’s wasted his life.


NOW, I don’t think I was really an anxious kid compared to others.  But I remember distinctly that feeling of being afraid that somehow I would end up addicted to tobacco or drugs or alcohol, even though I don’t have an addictive personality.  I guess I visualized some gang of delinquent kids catching me as I walked home from school and forcing me to become addicted to crack or something.  I’m almost 24 now, and I’m still not addicted to drugs or alcohol, I don’t have any children, and life on Earth still flourishes.

Of course, a lot of the more ridiculous fear-fantasies dissipated long ago.  At some point you realize that certain things will never happen unless you want them to happen—nobody’s going to make me get addicted to tobacco.  But some fears persisted.  Fear of failure, fear of making mistakes, fear of being rejected, fear of choosing the wrong path in life, fear of ending up trapped.  Maybe it’s those last two that stuck with me the longest.  They might also be fears that are especially powerful among people of my demographic: upper middle class, relatively educated, world-is-our-oyster types.  So many choices to make, so much opportunity cost to consider.  It’s paralyzing.  I think there’s been a lot of research done that shows that greater choice only improves happiness up to a certain point, and after that it decreases happiness.  My generation definitely lives in a world with frighteningly many choices to make.  How many chances we have to take a wrong turn!  How easy it is to be seduced by something fair-seeming on the way, only to realize too late that you’ve turned off the true path. 

Some people deal with this choice by framing everything in terms of obligation.  I have to go to college, I have to get a loan, I have to get a Master’s, I have to get a job that pays a decent wage, I have to have a car, I need to have a girlfriend/boyfriend, I have to socialize in the way that others socialize.  It’s easier to make choices (and live with the choices you make) when you don’t see things as choices at all.  All the way through college, I felt oppressed by that fear of choosing the wrong path, ending up trapped, not doing things the right way.  At the same time, I felt that social pressure was pushing me to live my life in a certain sequence, funneling me into the kind of colorless, cowardly existence that the deepest part of me has always disdained. 

So few people seem to be truly free.  So many people seem to invent limits to the world that aren’t really there.  Things must be this way, I must act this way, I can do this, I can’t do that, I have to do what others do, I have to care what others think.  This is the way things are done. So many people worship strange idols.


FOR the first six months after graduating college, I was in transition.  I moved to Europe to get away from things, think over my options, and look for direction.  I came to conclusion that it really didn’t matter what I chose, so long as I chose something and committed to it.  About a month before graduating the notion really hit me hard, all at once, that there are many right paths at any given time.  We are surrounded by them at all times, in all choices, and the fear of making a bad choice makes no difference to how your choices actually pan out.  Yes, caution is always merited, but fear and caution are not the same thing.

So after half a year in Europe I decided to apply to Peace Corps.  It wasn’t an impulsive action—the application process takes forever, which is good for rooting out the capricious types.  The two-year commitment seemed about right to me—it would be something tough and completely different, requiring long-term fortitude and not just the flaring passion of a twenty-something dreamer.  I did not see it as a flight from the real world into some fantasy existence.  I saw it as an escape from delusion into reality.

Anyway, the nine months between beginning my application and leaving everything behind could also be easily clumped into that “post-college transition” bloc of my life.  I had made the commitment, but I still wasn’t doing anything.  It was a long process of killing time and making mental preparations.  Of course, that isn’t to say that I didn’t change over that period.  Those fifteen total months saw some serious self-work.  I needed them to heal, get my head straight, and choose my next steps.  I was much more stable, secure, and resolute when I left for Asia than when I left for Europe.

On one of my last days in Florida I got a phone call from my friend John Kux’s mother, whom I hadn’t seen or talked to since high school.  He had told her I was leaving for Indonesia soon, and she called to wish me luck and share a piece of wisdom.

I’ve known people who served in Peace Corps.  I’m telling you, you’re about to go into the meatgrinder and you’re gonna come out on the other side a completely different person.

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.  I didn’t exactly want to ditch the person I already was, and the image of diving into a meatgrinder wasn’t reassuring.  But I told her that I was looking forward to it, because personal growth was the whole point of doing this. 


SINCE getting to Indonesia, it’s as if everything has kicked up to warp speed.  I’m not sure I’d use the term “meatgrinder” to describe it, but something has happened.  And here my words fail me.  I don’t know exactly how to describe or encapsulate it.  I mean, obviously, I have learned a lot of things I didn’t know before and I have had many new experiences.  But the change is much deeper than that.  I don’t know what exactly precipitated it.  Something profound has sunk in. 

I’ve always been a confident person, and since I was a kid people have been telling that I have excellent potential.  Sometimes it takes years for things you know intellectually to take root in your soul and bloom.  This is the first time I’ve felt truly empowered.  Like some of that potential energy has been transformed to kinetic energy.  I feel strength in me—a kind of strength of spirit and mind that lets me look at the world without fear in my eyes.  And all of a sudden those old fears—about making the wrong choices and falling into traps and living in delusion—seem to have disappeared, and my reaction to them is the same as my reaction to the fear of becoming a smoker: It’s not going to happen without your consent.  There is nothing to be afraid of.

All at once, the future has become this unbelievably exciting idea.  In the face of the last half-year of challenges, my understanding of myself as a person—my values, my strengths and talents, my triggers and limits—has developed at incredible rate.  Those clouds and doubts about what’s going to happen next, the anxiety about getting a little older and having to finally “join the real world”, have disappeared.  There is nothing standing between me and the life I want to live.  It’s just a choice, and I’m already living it.


SOMETIMES I look back at the years and give them epithets.  2010 was Transition and Meditation and Healing.  2009 was Rupture and Trial.  And looking at 2011 (now that it’s approaching its conclusion) three names occur to me:

The Year of Shedding Fear.  The Year of Awakening.  The Year of Blossoming.

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