I don't like terror. I abhor scary movies and mystery stories. I won’t even brave the Haunted Mansion at Disney World.
The idea of skydiving or eating fried bugs holds no appeal.
I am, however, a fan of fear with purpose.
At least, I have a newfound respect for doing the thing that scares us most.
In early December, I spotted a casting call for our community production of "Pippi Longstocking." I’ve long dreamed of getting my entire family involved in local theater, so I signed up all the children.
The night before the audition, I looked again at the casting sign-up.
“Should I audition, too?” I wondered aloud to my husband.
“Yes!” was his response.
"Why not?" I thought to myself and signed up.
Then the fear started creeping in. This wasn’t just nerves. This was absolute terror, the kind that keeps a person up at night. What was I thinking, auditioning for a play? I hadn’t stepped on a stage in 18 years. My acting skills were beyond rusty. My singing voice hadn't seen the other side of a hymn book in a decade. And horror of horrors, would I have to dance?
I raced back to my computer and deleted myself from the audition sign-up.
Then, like a penguin who shoves the first few of its group into the water to make sure they don’t get eaten by a killer whale, I sent my children off to the audition. They all came back in one piece, not just unscathed but beaming. They loved the experience.
I took a deep breath and signed up again. I didn't tell anyone I was auditioning. I was even too afraid to say the words aloud. My husband spotted my audition sheet and gave me a knowing smile.
“I need to go fill up the car with gas,” I told him, trying to hide the sheer terror on my face. I slipped the audition sheet into my purse. “I may be gone a while.”
The audition went just fine. Not stellar, but fine. I did not dissolve into a million pieces. The director did not eat me, and she did not (thank heaven) ask me to dance.
And wonder of wonders, our entire family made the show. In February I get to perform with my favorite people in one of my favorite children’s stories — a dream come true.
When I look back at all the turning points in my life, I went into all of them with fear: marriage, mothering, marathoning, helping to start a charter school, even writing this column. When I pitched the idea to my editor years ago, my husband wrote the email while I was hyperventilating in the corner.
But the actions that scared me most have brought me the greatest rewards. I’ve realized, over and over again, I am stronger than I think. My fears will eat me alive not if I act upon them but if I don’t.
As we enter a new year and fashion our requisite goals, we should look at what holds us back from doing what we really want to do. What obstacles do we put in our way? How can we parlay fear into action?
First, pinpoint what you really want. Do you want to write a book, run a 5K, learn to paint, lose weight, learn to operate your digital camera or try your hand at cooking?
What stands in your way? There may be factors outside of your control. It may not be the right time. Most often, however, our own inhibitions keep us from acting on our goals.
Second, couple yourself with someone brave. Find a friend, spouse or family member who is willing to push you into the water with the sharks. Have them work as your sounding board, your coach and the one who holds you accountable for follow-through.
Third, give yourself a system of rewards for doing something that scares you. A lot of programs, such as Weight Watchers, work upon this premise, but you can create your tailor-made incentives. Make a monthly or weekly plan.
Four, say yes. If you open yourself to new possibilities, opportunities will come your way.
I once heard Dan Yaccarino, a successful children’s book illustrator, give a presentation on saying yes to assignments completely out of his comfort zone. He took on animation when he had no idea how to animate. He designed parade floats for Disney and cartoon characters for PBS Kids. His philosophy was to say yes, then surround himself with more capable people. I can attest that this idea really works.
Hopes and dreams are a dime a dozen. What stands in our way is fear, the fear that if we actually act upon our dreams, we might fail. We might not finish that race. We may burn the bacon. We may have to dance our middle-aged selves across an audition floor.
The writer and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Always do what you are afraid to do.”
Will we come through in one piece? You bet. Acting out of fear, acting through our fear, is itself a success. We will discover we are stronger than we think. We will not get eaten alive.
We will, in fact, learn what it means to be alive.