One Thing That Scares You
Powell's Books in Portland has something for everyone. There are two totally separate multi-bookshelf-wide spaces that are just for Star Wars paraphernalia. (One is for kids who are into Star Wars -- baby stuff, like that Star Wars origami book that came out recently, and all the needless collaborative projects between Star Wars and Lego; the other is for grown-ups who intrinsically value the fanfic world of Star Wars. The latter section is for people who have tattoos of R2D2, and no one else.) There's a room of maps for every occasion: road trip, mountain trip, bike adventure, long walk, flying in a low plane, you name it. It can be fascinating to stand around in one of the niche spaces in Powell's and build a stereotype about the type of person who lingers there. Travelers, for example, love waterproof pants. Star Wars readers, alternately, invariably have stuff ON their pants (like mustard, or model monster paint).
One of my favorite niche spaces in Powell's -- at least partially for the kind of person who likes to hang out there -- is the mystical spirituality section. The typical mystical spirituality section browser is a crimpy-gray-haired woman in tie-dyed linen who smells like lavender and patchouli. I know that sounds too cliche to be real, but I spent 30 minutes with that exact woman last time I was in Powell's, listening to her describe the idiosyncrasies of a medley of packs of Tarot cards. I like the smell of that corner of Powell's (it's in the Rose Room), as well as the cadence of the titles there. The names of the books feel enormous and impossible: "The Eternal Conversation of the Mind"; "Holding The Darkest Weighted Soul"; "Sleeping Soundly With Your Demons."
In June, I wandered around the mystical spirituality section of Powell's, picking up books and flipping through, trying to find something that would lead me somewhere. (I live most of my life by picking up books at random and believing they will pull me forward.) On a feature shelf toward the front, I noticed an assortment of "guided journals" -- semi-blank books that provided writing prompts and ideas for filling them up with utility. One of the journals was called, "Do One Thing That Scares You Every Day." You were supposed to follow the direction on the cover, and then record your scary thing on the subsequent pages. The idea of making this a life practice made me laugh out loud. The aspiring mystics around me did not bat an eyelash. Random bookstore laughter is well within their norm.
I thought the idea of doing one thing that scared you every day was funny because I couldn't imagine who on earth DIDN'T do that. Roughly 90 percent of everything I do in life scares me. The other 10 percent of what I do is watching "The Office" reruns on Netflix.
Here is a list of things (just off the top of my head) that scare me: Waking up in the morning and having to get out of bed, knowing that I will have to interact with people and be at least nominally charming. Eating anything at all, really, because it can all kill you; everything you put in your body can kill you; even foods you grew up thinking were good for you because they were gross, like wheat bread, can definitely kill you. Putting on clothes for the day, when the weather is so fussy, and you can't be sure if it is going to stay the way it is or rain torrentially for a few hours; or, worse, if you might get stuck in a crazy-air-conditioned building you can't easily leave. Those are things I do EVERY DAY, within the first twenty minutes of waking up.
And then there are the bigger things. There's commuting anywhere at all alongside strangers in cars who could care less if you live or die. There's doing whatever work you do at the constant risk of failure. There's dealing with the nature of the earth, because you have to, because you have no other choice; even though it is prone to hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and temperamental hot-and-cold affects. All of this is, obviously, utterly terrifying.
But the biggest, scariest thing in life is to love. To love is to be invested in your own life. It is to assert that your existence in the world has some kind of purpose. That's the scariest thing there is, because to love is to risk failure; to risk loss; to risk the pain that necessarily comes along with it. And maybe, in our hearts, we know that it goes BEYOND risk. To love is to GUARANTEE loss; to ENSURE that we will suffer. To love is to manifest pain, and then to do it anyway.
On an episode of "True Detective" (which I haven't seen, but which was quoted on a recent episode of Radiolab about nihilism), the pessimistic detective Matthew Mcconaughey-portrayed character Rust Cohle says, “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law…We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory, experience, and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.” This sentiment is the opposite of fear: to believe completely that life on earth is utterly purposeless is to excuse oneself from the possibility of failure. If nothing matters, than how can you fail? And if you can't fail, what is there to be afraid of?
A recent-ish Psychology Today article pared human fear down to five categories. Everything we can live to fear, it says, can be sorted into one of these umbrella "fear boxes," which are, in and of themselves, a hierarchy of sorts. The five basic fears are extinction, mutilation, loss of autonomy, and ego death. In George Orwell's 1984, the protagonist (Winston) is sent to Room 101, which is designed to always contain the visitor's greatest fear. For Winston, the room contains rats. Rats nestle inside the umbrella fear of mutilation: it is not the rat he is afraid of; it's the possibility of being chewed up by a rat, or infected by a rat, or disfigured by a rat, or what have you. That fear exists because Winston Smith has in his heart some notion that his life is worth something. There is something about being alive that he has decided to love.
I don't think people have to love. Memories of being hurt, abused, or degraded can keep us from loving completely, or from letting others in. I love writing so much that sometimes I can't do it. I'm afraid of it. What if I fail? What does that say about the person I am?
Writing is one thing. Writing can't love me (or not love me) back; writing is not particularly fickle. The decision to love other living things is crazy-scary. It's like wandering out on a tight-rope wire over a flame. And yet, we do it. Even despite ourselves, we continue to love each other. That scares ALL of us. Anyone who says that it doesn't is deluding herself.
When I think about the human capacity for love, I relate a lot to the people in the mystical spirituality section of Powell's. The books in that section -- about ancient earth magic and deep cosmic truths; about people who throw themselves off mountains for their gods; about people who simply can't believe that everybody is nobody, even if that DOES constitute a major flaw in their evolution -- are really nothing more or less than declarations of purpose.
The "Do One Thing That Scares You Every Day" journal wants you to write about trying octopus for the first time, or swimming in a weird murky river, or telling your crush that you think she has pretty eyes. If I had that journal, I would wake up every morning and write, "I got out of bed today, and I decided to love something. That is enough."