We are by the lake. The sun spent the day high and bright, but now it's thinking of setting, and I say out loud a rule: "Anything that sounds mostly scary and a little bit fun you should do." You say, "No, you have it backward, don't you? Anything that sounds mostly fun and a little bit scary you should do?"
I didn't have it backward. I had it right. Here are some things that sound mostly fun and a little bit scary: watching Cabin In The Woods; making out with someone you don't know all that well; eating an entire pizza; a roller coaster. I'm not saying you shouldn't do those things; I just don't think that's where the really good stuff comes from. That's where Friday nights that get thrown away in the backlog come from; or pleasant experiences that don't add much or subtract much from your overall life story.
The thing is that we act like fear is such a big deal.
I'm not saying it's not a big deal. But we don't use it all the way most of the time. Instead, we avoid it, because it is unpleasant; we push it away and find other emotions to feel. People like to stuff fear down under their floor boards, and shine a searchlight on joy and calm and excitement instead. Maybe we evolved to do that. As How Stuff Works explains it,
Fear is a chain reaction in the brain that starts with a stressful stimulus and ends with the release of chemicals that cause a racing heart, fast breathing and energized muscles, among other things, also known as the fight-or-flight response.
The article goes on to explain that fear works in two ways. The first is your gut reaction to things, which makes decisions based on instinct and asks questions later. That's the part of your brain that slams the door; that ducks behind the house; that throws the rock at the shadowy figure.
The second is the way you begin to reason and play around with fear a little bit:
The thalamus sends this information to the sensory cortex, where it is interpreted for meaning. The sensory cortex determines that there is more than one possible interpretation of the data and passes it along to the hippocampus to establish context. The hippocampus asks questions.
The truth is, we don't actually have that much to be afraid of. But we feel fear anyway, and sometimes -- most of the time -- we stop after the first brain reaction. We decide not to think. We feel the feeling, react by running, and then tuck the feeling away. Our poor brains don't even usually get the chance to reason and rationalize and play around with fear.
You say "War seems mostly scary and a little bit fun. Should you do war?" A pelican lazily pressures a seagull off the floating post closest to us, and the seagull takes it in stride, laughing into the ocean. War doesn't seem a little bit fun. War seems a little bit interesting. But I see your point, so I should clarify.
I don't think people should run around stabbing each other with knives just because that sounds mostly scary but a little bit fun. There's a prerequisite rule to all my life rules, after all, which is that you should do what you need to do to make yourself happy, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. That's an almost impossible rule to follow, because by nature we hurt each other. We can't help it. The object is at least to not mean to do it.
I think you'd be surprised by how often you feel fear and name it something else. Nobody wants to feel fear. It makes a person seem weak and cowardly. You are sitting down on the bench now, looking out at the water. The wind is bossing everything around. The ripples against the stone steps slosh like a stomach.
Humans have evolved to feel fear in order to survive. Over time, people who reacted with fear to the right things (deadly spiders, falling boulders, angry rhinos, etc.) stayed alive, and passed those traits on to their offspring. In writing about the evolution of fear, Charles Darwin tested his own reaction among angry snakes charging behind a thick slate of glass, and, when he recoiled again and again at the sight, said, "My will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced." So fear is this emotion that defies will and reason. It is bigger than our own thinking selves.
Humans have evolved to feel fear in order to survive. But at this point, we are so preoccupied with survival that we are afraid of too much. We are afraid of feeling cold. We are afraid of feeling hot. We are afraid of not being good enough. We are afraid of failure. We are afraid of the things we don't understand or aren't familiar with. We are afraid of love.
Alexis, my sister, is excellent at board games. That's an understatement. She so much as looks at a board game and it has basically already been won. I have never seen her not settle Catan. She can win Risk and Stratego and Monopoly each in under an hour.
But when she moved back to Portland, she didn't have a lot of people to play board games with. She found a flyer for a group of people who met every Wednesday to play board games together, and her first reaction was fear. She didn't know anyone in the group, and she had never visited the location. What if she went and no one liked her? What if she went and no one was even there and someone in the front office made fun of her because the flyer had actually been just one gigantic prank? What if she went and everyone stopped playing all at once, turned, and simultaneously started to point and laugh at her? Humans have evolved to feel fear in order to survive. Alexis' will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which she had never experienced.
But actually, not powerless.
Because going to the game night was mostly scary. But it was also a little bit fun.
You say, "I think you and I have very different definitions of fear." The sun hangs deeper, as if it is perched on a spoon behind us, and then smashes itself into the side of the hill, spitting big orange shadows onto the trees underneath.
Psychologists agree that there are only seven basic emotions humans can feel, and fear is one of them. The thing I'm talking about -- the deep wrenching sense that I don't want to be uncomfortable, that I don't want to get hurt, that I don't want to change course -- is something that scientifically can only be described as fear. The dictionary says that fear is "an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous." The more human beings experience life, the more we are attuned to its many unique dangers.
But when you look at all the things you want in life -- to be successful, to experience beauty, to have a family -- you may put those things up on the top of a hill like this one, and you may ask how you reach them. The thing is that taking the path means wrapping your arms around fear. It means inviting fear into bed with you, putting your head on his shoulder, and sleeping with him night after night after night.
I asked my student Eva if she wanted to enter this big art contest that would get her a full scholarship to art camp. She said no. I asked if it was because she didn't want to go to the camp. She said that she did want to go to the camp, but she didn't want to enter the contest. I asked her why she didn't want to enter. She told me it was because she might lose. I entered her anyway, but didn't tell her. She had painted the most amazingly beautiful landscape in neon pink and black, and I thought it was deep and dark and weird and perfect.
Failure is everywhere. Most things people try to do they fail at. And every time you fail, it feels uncomfortable; every failure seems to be saying to you, "You're not good enough. Why did you even try?" And after that happens enough, you start to self-evolve a little buzzing fear within yourself that you might never be good enough, and it's too painful to keep trying and failing and trying and failing. And then you might stop. You might watch Cabin in the Woods and not enter an art contest. You might eat a whole pizza alone and not go to game night with a bunch of strangers. And that's fine. But it's not enough.
The pelican stretches out and then dives into the water, shattering the calm, interrupting the wind, and pulls out a fish; a major triumph. Eventually, we all die. This is the beautiful symmetry of living.
When I meet someone who is interesting and engaging, my impetus is to move away from them, because I'm afraid they will not like me as much as I like them. When I think about traveling, I tell myself that maybe someday I'll travel but not right now, because I'm afraid I don't have the money and I'm afraid I won't be able to make up the time at work and I'm afraid that if I do ask for the days off then my boss will get mad at me and I will get fired. When I think about stepping on stage to do a stand-up comedy routine, I am afraid of being heckled or not laughed at or booed off the stage.
Many of the people I have let myself really love have hurt me -- not to their fault at all, but because that is what happens in relationships most of the time. Many of the trips I've gone on have been lackluster and expensive, and have yielded car accidents and work deficit. I've done stand-up for years, and I still get heckled sometimes, and often no one laughs, and once someone even booed.
Samuel Beckett said, "Try again, fail again, fail better."
Mostly -- at least for me -- fear sets in when I feel like I am right on the cusp of loving someone with all my heart. I will meet the person, and they will be great, and at first it will be fun, and then one day, I'll realize that I can't imagine life without them. This isn't just the kind of love that goes with sex. It's not reserved for boyfriend-girlfriend-girlfriend-girlfriend-type partnerships. It's the love you feel when you want with all your heart for someone else in the world to be happy, beyond what is rational. When you want to shape the world into a place that is safe and beautiful for them, even though it is not. I will meet the person, and they will be great, and it first it will be fun, and then one day, all of a sudden, it is scary.
Because what if I lose them? What if they decide they don't like me? What if all along my love was unrequited? What if I don't love right, or strong enough, or with enough words? What if I destroy it? What if I destroy the beautiful love?
We should jump into the lake. That is what we should do. I know we should do this, but I am scared. You say, "We shouldn't jump in, because we will be cold for the whole ride home."
But a little bit fun.
My argument is not that it will work out every time. It won't. My argument is not that people ought not to protect themselves. They should. My argument is not that fear is not valuable. Quite the opposite!
My argument is that you should do the things that scare you. Let your brain play inside fear. Name it as fear, look it in the eye, and find a way to invite it with you up the hill, because you're going to have to make friends if you want to get anywhere at all.
We don't jump. So this trip to the lake will be just a trip to the lake.
But next time: anything that is mostly scary but a little bit fun, you should do.