When I was a little girl, I was often afraid. I was afraid of missing the bus, afraid of upsetting my parents, afraid of not doing things right. I was afraid that the kids who said they were my friends didn’t really like me. I have no idea where it came from. My childhood was far from scary. I am not sure how much people knew how scared I felt. I can’t say whether I hid it well. I just remember fear being a constant companion, an imaginary friend who stuck to me like glue.
My fear protected me. I didn’t do a lot of dumb things kids do because of a healthy dose of fear. But at the same time my fear held me back. There were a lot of healthy and exciting things I wanted to do but never tried for fear of being bad, fear of looking dumb, fear of simply failing, fear that if I tried I might just drown.
In Chinese medicine they say that fear is the energy of water. Think of wild rapids that make your heart race, or dark murky depths that press on your lungs. Think of rivers that flood, or hurricanes that sweep us out to sea. We can’t control water, no matter how we try. It scares us. Because it is that strong.
The other energy of water is strength. Think of the power of water as it moves, carving canyons, changing coastlines. Water which turns deserts into blooming paradise. Water which sustains life.
Fear and strength are two sides of the same coin. To stand in the energy of water is to know both fear and deep unyielding strength. And we carry the potential for both when we face any great trauma, challenge or transition.
One of the ways to frame the story of my life (and maybe yours too) is a journey of understanding both sides of the energy of water. Sometimes it seems as though in the beginning I only knew fear. But in the last decade or so of my life, I am coming to embrace the quiet, fierce power of my strength, of knowing that no matter what comes I am going to be OK. And that strength is what has been allowing me to transform, to move beyond my fear and into my real potential.
Sometimes I feel nothing short of wimpy. A career change should be no big deal to a woman of my age and experience. And yet as I am readying myself to go part-time at work, to enter school I am feeling wave after wave of fear. Its exhausting. The fear–it is making everything so hard.
You would think that at this point in my rather mature life that I would have the where with all to make this shift without much issue. But, the truth is, nothing can trigger these fears, like money issues.
From the beginning of my working life, I have never made enough to create a cushion, the kind of cushion that I tell myself would help me feel “safe” about making a leap. First a teacher, then a government staffer, then an activist, I have always worked for “just enough”–the desire to help and do something meaningful always trumping my desire for money or material things. There were moments when I felt more comfortable than others, but truth is every raise came just at the right moment as my expenses increased.
While I have never been motivated by the prospect of accumulating money, I am a creature of certain comforts. I like the convenience of having a car (even if it is a beat up 14 year old one). I cherish the protection of my house. I like being able to eat meat when I want to, and to be able to serve a variety of organic foods. I like being able to offer wine to my friends and I like being able to buy new sheets for my bed every few years. Most importantly, I like being able to give Max a chance to do the things he loves–like playing hockey and swimming and camping in the woods. I can’t imagine living without health insurance. And these things, alas, they do require money. And I am afraid, deeply afraid that if I make this switch all this is going to blow up, the fragile balance I created will turn upside down and we will end up homeless or hungry.
When I first became aware of my desire to do healing work, years and years ago, I told myself I needed to wait until I could get ahead, until I could save something–someday. When Juan left me, and my finances took a tumble I told myself I needed to wait until I found a partner to provide a safety net. All of this waiting was born of fear–and my attempts to hold her at bay.
But after years of waiting for circumstances to change, it is clear to me that they won’t. As much as I would like a plan that will allow me to put fear aside, I can’t run away from fear. I am going to need to stand in her. And the only way to do it is to embrace her other side–strength. But I don’t know how to be THAT strong. I don’t know how to be fearless. I never have been.
When I was reflecting on this to Bonnie, my very wise friend she said to me, “Its not about completely dispelling fear for strength…its about moving the line–and you my friend only need to move it a little.” I didn’t know what she meant.
“When you were small,” she told me, “you were like 80% scared and 20% strong and so most of the time that fear stopped you. As you grew up, went to college, as you became a mom, as you lived through your divorce you transformed your fear to strength because you had to. It was the gift of your journey. You moved the line from 80% scared to 60% scared to 52% scared. That’s where you are right now–you are 52% scared and 48% strong. Problem is that 4% differential might just stop you now. That would be the greatest tragedy. So instead you just need to move the line. Not much just a little bit.”
At that moment it hit me. I don’t need to be fearless to do this. I don’t need to be bold beyond measure. I just need to be 52% strong.
I think sometimes when we look from the outside we see women who have moved mountains and assumed that they were fearless. I think, I am beginning to see, that most of them may have been 52% strong when they got going. They had just enough strength to not let the fear paralyze them And that was all they needed.