Ok, so here’s what I’ve decided is the truest fact about human life that I know:
Each of us is defined not by our desires nor our talents nor our intelligence… we are all defined by our fears, and the degree to which we are willing and/or able to confront them. The most successful people are not the best and the brightest, but the bravest.
It’s not about fearlessness. I actually have very little admiration for fearlessness. Bravery is what I admire. The same thing, you say? Not at all, I respond. Bravery is when you do something even though you’re terrified. Fearlessness is just not being afraid.
I say if it doesn’t scare you, then you needn’t be applauded for doing it. For example: I’m not at all afraid of things like jumping out of an airplane or riding rides that go really fast and twirl upside-down a lot. I enjoy them, but I’m not afraid of them. So it’s not a big deal if I do something like that. My lovely girlfriend, on the other hand, is scared shitless at the prospect of jumping out of a plane, so if she ever does it, it will be a true accomplishment.
But setting silly stunts like skydiving aside, to my mind, there is no more admirable characteristic than bravery. Bravery to face your demons. Bravery to look inward and really confront yourself. Trying something new- putting yourself on the line. Knowingly risking your ego, your money, your stature for something you want or believe in… that is the mark of the best kind of person.
I once was talking to one of the wisest men I know about something that I really wanted. I had about a thousand reasons why I couldn’t realistically achieve what I was wishing for, though. After an hour of chatting, he got to the heart of the matter: I was right– I couldn’t possibly have what I wanted. Not because of the thousand reasons I had told him about, but just because I was too afraid to try for it. I wasn’t willing to risk that much. I wasn’t willing to face the possibility of failure.
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
That’s from Hamlet. Look around at the people in your office, or on the subway, or at Target or WalMart. Look especially at the ones you know for a fact will never make much of themselves, the ones who make very little in the way of meaningful contributions (contributions to the company, to society, to the world). Or look at the rich people with nothing going on behind their eyes. The ones who have a lot of money, but still can’t seem to figure out why they’re so miserable. Maybe just look in the mirror. I think most of us walk around sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. Ghostly images of the people that could have been had we just sacked up and faced our fear.
That brings me to another poetic quotation, if you’ll indulge me (and really, what choice do you have?). From Heinrich Heine’s group of poems Buch der Lieder, or Book of Songs, the poem Der Doppelgänger, which was set beautifully to music by Franz Schubert in his song cycle Schwanengesang, or “swan song”. The word doppelgänger means something like “ghostly double” or look-alike, and in this poem it refers to a man who startles the speaker on an empty street on a still night (it’s actually a poem about a lost love, but I think the over-arching message applies). The second of the three stanzas,
Da steht auch ein Mensch und starrt in die Höhe,
Und ringt die Hände, vor Schmerzensgewalt;
Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe –
Der Mond zeigt mir meine eig’ne Gestalt.
roughly translates to:
A man also stands there and stares at the heavens,
And wrings his hands in violent pain:
I shudder when I see his countenance-
The moon shows me my own form!
Quelle dramatique, non? Give this poem as a gift to the angsty emo teen in your life- they’ll love you for it (or commit suicide… one or the other).
Anyway, I’ve decided that I’m going to let only one fear control my life: the fear that I will one day be alone on a silent street and be confronted by a ghostly figure staring into the air and wringing his hands because he was too chicken shit to actually do the things that would’ve made his life worth living. Fuck that guy! I hate that guy!