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Defending Your Weakness

bigmagic_gilbertPlease understand that the only reason I can speak so authoritatively about fear is that I know it so intimately.

I know every inch of fear, from head to toe. I’ve been a frightened person my entire life. I was born terrified. I’m not exaggerating; you can ask anyone in my family, and they’ll confirm that, yes, I was an exceptionally freaked-out child. My earliest memories are of fear, as are pretty much all the memories that come after my earliest memories.

Growing up, I was afraid not only of all the commonly recognised and legitimate childhood dangers (the dark, strangers, the deep end of the swimming pool), but I was also afraid of an extensive list of completely benign things (snow, perfectly nice babysitters, cars, playgrounds, stairs, Sesame Street, the telephone, board games, the grocery store, sharp blades of grass, any new situation whatsoever, anything that dared to move, etc., etc., etc.).

I was a sensitive and easily traumatised creature who would fall into fits of weeping at any disturbance in her force field. My father, exasperated, used to call me Pitiful Pearl. We went to the Delaware shore one summer when I was eight years old, and the ocean upset me so much that I tried to get my parents to stop all the people on the beach from going into the surf (I just would’ve felt a lot more comfortable if everyone had stayed safely on his or her own towel, quietly reading; was that too much to ask?). If I’d had my way, I would have spent that entire vacation – indeed, my entire childhood – indoors, snuggled on my mother’s lap, in low light, preferably with a cool washcloth on my forehead.

This is a horrible thing to say, but here goes: I probably would’ve loved having one of those awful Munchausen-syndrome-by-proxy mothers, who could have colluded with me in pretending that I was eternally sick, weak, and dying. I would have totally cooperated with that kind of mother in creating a completely helpless child, given half the chance.

But I didn’t get that kind of mother. Not even close.

Instead, I got a mother who wasn’t having it. She wasn’t having a minute of my drama, which is probably the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. My mom grew up on a farm in Minnesota, the proud product of tough Scandinavian immigrants, and she was not about to raise a little candy-ass. Not on her watch. My mother had a plan for turning around my fear that was almost comic in its straightforwardness: At every turn, she made me do exactly what I dreaded most.

Scared of the ocean? Get in that ocean! Afraid of the snow? Time to go shovel snow!

Can’t answer the telephone? You are now officially in charge of answering the telephone in this house!

Hers was not a sophisticated strategy, but it was consistent. Trust me, I resisted her. I cried and sulked and deliberately failed. I refused to thrive. I lagged behind, limping and trembling. I would do almost anything to prove that I was emotionally and physically totally enfeebled.

To which my mom was, like, “No, you aren’t.”

I spent years pushing back against my mother’s unshakable faith in my strength and abilities. Then one day, somewhere in adolescence, I finally realised that this was a really weird battle for me to be fighting. Defending my weakness? That’s seriously the hill I wanted to die on?

As the saying goes: ‘Argue for your limitations and you get to keep them.’ Why would I want to keep my limitations? I didn’t, as it turned out. I don’t want you keeping yours, either.

Fear is Boring

Over the years, I’ve often wondered what finally made me stop playing the role of Pitiful Pearl, almost over-night. Surely there were many factors involved in that evolution (the tough-mom factor, the growing-up factor), but mostly I think it was just this: I finally realised that my fear was boring.

Mind you, my fear had always been boring to everybody else, but it wasn’t until mid-adolescence that it became, at last, boring even to me. My fear became boring to me, I believe, for the same reason that fame became boring to Jack Gilbert: because it was the same thing every day.

Around the age of fifteen, I somehow figured out that my fear had no variety to it, no depth, no substance, no texture. I noticed that my fear never changed, never delighted, never offered a surprise twist or an unexpected ending. My fear was a song with only one note – only one word, actually – and that word was ‘STOP!’ My fear never had anything more interesting or subtle to offer than that one emphatic word, repeated at full volume on an endless loop: ‘STOP, STOP, STOP, STOP!’

Which means that my fear always made predictably boring decisions, like a choose-your-own-ending book that always had the same ending: nothingness.

I also realised that my fear was boring because it was identical to everyone else’s fear. I figured out that everyone’s song of fear has exactly that same tedious lyric: ‘STOP, STOP, STOP, STOP!’ True, the volume may vary from person to person, but the song itself never changes, because all of us humans were equipped with the same basic fear package when we were being knitted in our mothers’ wombs. And not just humans: If you pass your hand over a petri dish containing a tadpole, the tadpole will flinch beneath your shadow. That tadpole cannot write poetry, and it cannot sing, and it will never know love or jealousy or triumph, and it has a brain the size of a punctuation mark, but it damn sure knows how to be afraid of the unknown.

Well, so do I.

So do we all. But there’s nothing particularly compelling about that. Do you see what I mean? You don’t get any special credit, is what I’m saying, for knowing how to be afraid of the unknown. Fear is a deeply ancient instinct, in other words, and an evolutionarily vital one, but it ain’t especially smart.

For the entirety of my young and skittish life, I had fixated upon my fear, as if it were the most interesting thing about me, when actually it was the most mundane. In fact, my fear was probably the only 100 percent mundane thing about me. I had creativity within me that was original; I had a personality within me that was original; I had dreams and perspectives and aspirations within me that were original. But my fear was not original in the least. My fear wasn’t some kind of rare artisanal object; it was just a mass-produced item, available on the shelves of any generic box store.

And that’s the thing I wanted to build my entire identity around?

The most boring instinct I possessed?

The panic reflex of my dumbest inner tadpole?


The Fear You Need and the Fear You Don’t Need

Now you probably think I’m going to tell you that you must become fearless in order to live a more creative life. But I’m not going to tell you that, because I don’t happen to believe it’s true. Creativity is a path for the brave, yes, but it is not a path for the fearless, and it’s important to recognise the distinction.

Bravery means doing something scary.

Fearlessness means not even understanding what the word scary means.

If your goal in life is to become fearless, then I believe you’re already on the wrong path, because the only truly fearless people I’ve ever met were straight-up sociopaths and a few exceptionally reckless three-year-olds – and those aren’t good role models for anyone.

The truth is, you need your fear, for obvious reasons of basic survival. Evolution did well to install a fear reflex within you, because if you didn’t have any fear, you would lead a short, crazy, stupid life. You would walk into traffic.

You would drift off into the woods and be eaten by bears. You would jump into giant waves off the coast of Hawaii, despite being a poor swimmer. You would marry a guy who said on the first date, ‘I don’t necessarily believe people were designed by nature to be monogamous.’

So, yes, you absolutely do need your fear, in order to protect you from actual dangers like the ones I’ve listed above.

But you do not need your fear in the realm of creative expression.

Seriously, you don’t.

Just because you don’t need your fear when it comes to creativity, of course, doesn’t mean your fear won’t show up. Trust me, your fear will always show up – especially when you’re trying to be inventive or innovative. Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome. Your fear – programmed by evolution to be hypervigilant and insanely overprotective – will always assume that any uncertain outcome is destined to end in a bloody, horrible death. Basically, your fear is like a mall cop who thinks he’s a Navy SEAL: He hasn’t slept in days, he’s all hopped up on Red Bull, and he’s liable to shoot at his own shadow in an absurd effort to keep everyone ‘safe’.

This is all totally natural and human.

It’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

It is, however, something that very much needs to be dealt with.

The Road Trip

Here’s how I’ve learned to deal with my fear: I made a decision a long time ago that if I want creativity in my life – and I do – then I will have to make space for fear, too.

Plenty of space.

I decided that I would need to build an expansive enough interior life that my fear and my creativity could peacefully coexist, since it appeared that they would always be together. In fact, it seems to me that my fear and my creativity are basically conjoined twins – as evidenced by the fact that creativity cannot take a single step forward without fear marching right alongside it. Fear and creativity shared a womb, they were born at the same time, and they still share some vital organs. This is why we have to be careful of how we handle our fear – because I’ve noticed that when people try to kill off their fear, they often end up inadvertently murdering their creativity in the process.

So I don’t try to kill off my fear. I don’t go to war against it. Instead, I make all that space for it. Heaps of space. Every single day. I’m making space for fear right this moment. I allow my fear to live and breathe and stretch out its legs comfortably. It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back. If I can relax, fear relaxes, too. In fact, I cordially invite fear to come along with me everywhere I go. I even have a welcoming speech prepared for fear, which I deliver right before embarking upon any new project or big adventure.

It goes something like this:

‘Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously. Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting – and, may I say, you are superb at your job. So by all means, keep doing your job, if you feel you must. But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. I recognise and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still – your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps; you’re not allowed to suggest detours; you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.’

Then we head off together – me and creativity and fear – side by side by side forever, advancing once more into the terrifying but marvelous terrain of unknown outcome.

Why It’s Worth It

It isn’t always comfortable or easy – carrying your fear around with you on your great and ambitious road trip, I mean – but it’s always worth it, because if you can’t learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you’ll never be able to go anywhere interesting or do anything interesting.

And that would be a pity, because your life is short and rare and amazing and miraculous, and you want to do really interesting things and make really interesting things while you’re still here. I know that’s what you want for yourself, because that’s what I want for myself, too.

It’s what we all want.

And you have treasures hidden within you – extraordinary treasures – and so do I, and so does everyone around us. And bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion, and the clock is ticking, and the world is spinning, and we simply do not have time anymore to think so small.

The above is an edited extract from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic.