When I was a kid, I was afraid of everything. My own shadow, my own voice, my power, my weakness. I was afraid of being right. I was afraid of being wrong. I was afraid of speaking up, and even more of remaining silent. I believe my entire life has been a series of lessons trying to teach me for once and for all to be brave.
Most people who did not know me as a child find it hard to believe how frightened I was when I was younger. I’ve sort of made a reputation at work as the gal who will say what everybody else is thinking, but doesn’t dare say out loud. Believe me when I tell you, that attitude did not come quickly or easily.
When I was younger, I bought very much into the Myth of Expertise. Teachers knew about learning. Parents knew about living. The nuns knew about God, and the guy on the news knew about everything else. There was always some point, somewhere in the fuzzy future, where one acquires the education and life experience to call themselves an expert. These people have a superior knowledge of All Things and must be listened to and obeyed at all cost.
From birth, it seems, we are trained out of our own intuition, our own internal sense of right and wrong. Some of us learn the lesson very well, and refuse to think, feel, or act without the prior approval of Someone Who Knows Better. Others are born rebels, going out of their way to resist any form of guidance or instruction in favor of what they know is true.
Self-Confidence as a Form of Rebellion
Back in school, there were a few people I practically idolized amongst my school mates. There was one guy who dared discuss Buddhism with the Brothers in religion class, and bucked the dress code at prom by wearing high tops with his tux years before that fad came and went. There was the girl who wore blue streaks in her hair and spiked leather bracelets at school, no matter how often Sister Barbara Nell glared at her in the halls. And then there was that rare, precious teacher who dared get real with us. The one who spoke about religion in its historical context, acknowledging the inconsistencies and challenging us to find our faith amidst the chaos of paradox that was the Catholic religion.
All of these people had a couple of things in common—they knew their mind and wouldn’t be pressured into silence or conformity. They expressed themselves articulately and with confidence in a way that never made their rebellion feel like childishness or stubbornness. And mostly, they forced me to think, to open my mind and really question my beliefs and values.
Be the Change You Want to See in the World
Growing from sullen teen to disappointed adult gave me ample opportunity to voice my disgust with people and The State of Things. On any given day, I could find myself complaining about one thing or another—conservatives, conformists, preppies, jocks—all those people who didn’t fit into my narrow little tunnel of correctness. (Oh, and don’t forget people who listened to Country Music and anyone associated with nighttime soap operas.) My music was true, my thoughts were authentic, and everybody who disagreed with me obviously fell into the category of idiot, poser, or wannabe. (Okay, we didn’t have the terms poser and wannabe in the 80s, but you get my drift.)
And all the while, as I silently judged everyone and everything around me, I was conforming. I went to a job I didn’t like, in an industry I strongly disapproved of, working among people with whom I had nothing in common. I went home and watched TV and dreamed of a life where I could be true, but did nothing at all to make it happen.
Sometimes Courage Comes When You Have Nowhere Left to Fall
In 1993, I got laid off from my job in That Horrible Industry. I packed two boxes and a duffel bag and got on a plane to Phoenix, Arizona, leaving behind everything I knew for a place on a friend’s couch and a job in a bread factory that I didn’t exactly want. I arrived in Phoenix, went to my job, and quit after one eight hour shift.
I did not move halfway across the country to kill my soul in another dead-end job.
I was very lucky. I had wonderful friends who let me crash with them until I could afford a place of my own, and I was brave (or stupid) enough to think I could make it on my own working temp jobs.
And I did. Somehow, despite very low wages and almost no practical job experience, I managed to scrape through.
Courageh is a Choice
Along with my new desert life and my friends and my inconsistent job situation, I made a conscious decision to go out on a limb in my personal life. My first point of business was to expand the mind that had grown horribly closed (or at least narrow) in the first twenty-something years of my life.
Each month, I took a bit of my salary and went to Best Buy. I would go to the world music section and purchase a CD from a country I knew nothing about. That’s how I discovered the Bulgarian Women’s Choir.
I also tried my hand at songwriting. That’s how I discovered filk.
(My song is beautifully recorded here by the Harmony Heifers on their self-titled album from Mystic Fig Music.)
Yes, I wrote that, along with about two more albums full of music and parodies. I performed with some friends at SciFi conventions from Phoenix to Baltimore during the 90s.
For a long time, I was getting myself out there, out on a limb, having fun and being creative.
And Then What Happened?
Somewhere along the line, I got scared again. Somewhere along the line, I silenced my voice again. While I still took time to be creative and have fun, more often than not (especially in the work arena), I found myself stifling again.
I suppose you could blame the economy. The 90s were very good to me financially. I eventually got a great job with a software company doing work I loved. I was surrounded by intelligent, open-minded people. I had good friends and a cozy little apartment and as the new millennium rolled around, I found myself in an incredible relationship. And then…well, lots happened.
And Then What Happened Next?
2001 took the wind out of most Americans. Suddenly, fear was a national pastime, complete with paranoia and suspicion at its side. It was not the time for difference, or for courage of individuality. Instead of focusing on expansion, we as a culture contracted emotionally and intellectually.
I found myself in a world not exactly suitable to me. I found myself in the very real experience of being jobless—on food stamps at one point, going to the local food bank once a week with my hat in my hands. Fey and I supported ourselves and her mother on her SSI check for an entire summer while I looked for work—in fact, in 2005 my gross personal annual income was $2500. (No, that was not a typo.)
There’s something about lack—of opportunity, of freedom, of mobility—that transforms a person. You start to appreciate things you took for granted before. You also don’t ever, ever want to find yourself in that place again.
Capitalizing on Fear
There are a lot of people and institutions that thrive on fear. Fear keeps people docile, and fear keeps people humble, and fear makes people tolerate things they’d never abide by otherwise.
As we grow older, we often sacrifice our dreams and our fun for safety—or at least the illusion thereof. We forget about that book we wanted to write, or the play we wanted to try out for. We put away the paint brushes and woodworking tools and resign ourselves to going to work for someone else and marking the rest of time with television or alcohol or mindless entertainment.
Fear kills passion. It also kills hope.
Finding the Strength
Somewhere, in the past few years, I made a pact with myself not to make decisions based on fear. It took a long time, because I had so much to be afraid of.
Discovering my truth. How can you speak your truth when you don’t know what it is? Before I could reclaim my dreams and my courage, I had to really stop and figure out what my truth was. What did I believe in? What values and traits did I want to promote in the world? How could I make the world a better place through my actions and words?
Living my truth. It’s hard to be truly afraid when you’re living an honest life. In order to dispel fear, I had to clean up my own back yard, clean out those skeletons that might someday come back to haunt me. I’m not talking about murder or corruption—I’m talking about silly things that seem so huge to me (and trivial to other people).
Making my peace. So many of my fears and insecurities have been rooted in experiences from my childhood. People who were cruel to me, mistakes I made that humiliated me, fears and doubts that plagued me. Never being good enough. Never fitting in. Before I could live my truth and be the courageous person I wanted to be, I had to find the grace to let go. Not forgive. Not forget. Just let go. Of the past. Of my disappointments. Of my anger and desire for revenge. Just let go, and make life about today.
So Now You’re Perfect?
Hardly. I still have my fears and doubts and insecurities. I still have days when I fear I will be outed as a complete fraud, mocked and humiliated by my coworkers, and cast out onto the street by my employers.
But I’m getting better. Each day, I make a conscious effort to do the absolute best work I can do. Not for my boss, not for a promotion, not for fame and fortune. I do it because it is the only thing I can tolerate from myself. Not perfection or grandiosity, simply the best I can do. Each day, I want to leave work knowing I worked hard, didn’t slack off, didn’t shove things under the carpet, and didn’t betray my values.
Each day, I come home to my partner of ten years and give her the best I can. I am honest and respectful. I am patience and generous. I still have my three-year-old moments (we both do), but Fey and I both go to sleep each night knowing we did our best.
And How’s That Working for Ya?
Oddly enough, when I started cleaning up my own house, I discovered the return of my courageous, plucky self. I found that I could speak up at work, in a respectful tone (when I remembered) without fear of retaliation. I found that I could begin to ask for what I wanted without feeling guilty. And I discovered, to my utter amazement, that all those friends I thought I had lost when I was going through my Long Dark Teatime of the Soul were still out there—older, wiser, and still very much the people I once loved.
By giving up on fear as motivation, I found opportunities peaking their heads through the window again. Maybe not in massive droves, like in the 90s, but more and more frequently. I found inspiration to write again—not just fan fiction (where I had made sort of a name for myself), but original work.
And at work, I found peace again. I may lose my job tomorrow, and that would suck. But I will know that I did everything I could do to be the best I could be. And I will know that the universe is not scary and paranoid and horrible like the post-9/11 fear-mongers wanted us to believe. The universe is abundant. The universe is exciting. The universe is full of adventures, just waiting to be had.
And I’m ready for a few new adventures. What about you?