I crossed and re-crossed my legs under the bar, wondering if the fishnet tights would be enough to glam up the cotton black dress I’d paired with black boots for the evening out. I knew my outfit was mild by Vegas standards, but living in an RV didn’t afford me many opportunities for wearing anything less comfortable or more luxurious than cotton. And yet there I was, biding my time with a video poker machine until a Vegas girls’ night out began.
When Liz arrived, my fears were confirmed: I was an under dressed mom next to a sexy, sophisticated, confident beauty.
She pulled up a bar stool beside me and ordered a drink, apologizing for keeping me waiting. She introduced me to her girlfriend and we spent a few minutes getting to know each other a little better than the Internet and a few quick meetings at conferences had previously allowed.
She told me about her past, one more harrowing – and frankly interesting – than I would have guessed based on a quick look at her or her online profiles. I admitted I was surprised to discover she hadn’t always been as perfectly put together as she appeared to be now. I admitted, too, to being more than a little intimidated at the idea of meeting her here tonight. She was stunning and I was, well, I was afraid of looking foolish.
“I’m always surprised when you say you’re afraid,” she said. “When you write about being worried or afraid, I just… I don’t get it. I don’t see that. I think of you as being totally fearless.”
The word was ridiculous next to my too plain dress and my precariously pinned hair. I was actively hating my glasses and my big ass, and this woman was telling me I was fearless. The pieces didn’t fit.
I stammered a bit and assured her I was almost always afraid, and then realized I wasn’t really always afraid. Not anymore.
“I guess I am less afraid than I used to be,” I said, “but I’m definitely not fearless. I just… I don’t know. Something.”
It wasn’t eloquent, but it was the best I could come up with that night at the bar in the Cosmopolitan.
I’ve been thinking about that conversation a lot since last Thursday night, and about what it means to be fearless. Fearless, of course, is the absence of fear, which usually accompanies an absence of good sense. I’ve certainly been accused of the latter, but I can sincerely attest to having plenty of fear. In fact, I usually suspect that I have more fear than most people, and then I’m afraid of what that says about me.
I’ve written nearly 150 posts on this blog about fear and being afraid.
I’ve written exactly none about being fearless.
No, I am not without fear. I may, however, be brave.
That’s not a small thing for a frightened person to admit to; to say that you are brave is itself an act of bravery when you are more fearful than not. And yet it must be so, because despite walking around with all of this fear, I keep doing the scary things.
My son Devin shares my penchant for fear. He is afraid of being wrong and afraid of getting less than his fair share. And he is afraid of heights.
His fears have kept him from experiencing some pretty cool stuff. He didn’t ride the Sky Wheel in Myrtle Beach or ride in a helicopter over the Grand Canyon. Recently, however, he seems to have decided that he is tired of the consequences of his fear of heights.
When we visited the Grand Canyon, he let me walk him over to the ledge of the rim. He was terrified, but he took my hand and believed me when I promised I’d keep him safe. He walked slowly, stopping every few steps to breathe deeply and muster up another ounce of courage.
“I’m afraid,” he’d tell me.
“I know,” I’d say. “Everyone is afraid of stuff. That’s OK. But this fear is your brain playing tricks on you, and you don’t have to let that fear stop you if you don’t want it to.”
“OK, OK,” he’d say, and he’d take another gulp of air and another step closer.
A week later he decided he was going to zip line over Fremont Street in Vegas. “I went to the edge of the Grand Canyon,” he said, “I can totally do this!”
He strapped on his safety harness and prepared to climb to the top of the launch podium, pausing to give me two thumbs up and a wide grin. He was proud of himself for his fearlessness, I knew.
And then he caught a glimpse of the ground below.
“Uhhh… Mom?” His progress up the last few steps slowed and I knew his fear was returning.
A few moments later, he was strapped to the cable and the full force of his fear returned, as if he’d never conquered it at all.
“I can’t do this!” he cried. “I want down!”
“You can do this,” I said again. “This is your brain playing tricks on you.”
We went back and forth for several minutes, and then he reached out and took my hand again, and this time instead of walking to the edge, we both jumped off of it.
He rode several feet with his eyes closed, still gripping my hand and as we sailed down parallel wires.
“You’re doing it!” I screamed. “You’re doing it!”
He opened his eyes, closed them again, and then opened them one more time. He looked around. He exhaled. He realized just as the ride was ending that he was, in fact, doing it.
“I want to do it again,” he told me as he stepped out of his harness on the landing platform.
No, Devin is not fearless either, but he is unquestionably brave, and looking at him I think I get a glimpse of how it is we live through our fears.
We decide we are tired of the consequences of our fears.
We take deep breaths and small steps.
We reach out for a hand we trust.
And sometimes, we just close our eyes and jump, screaming all the while, and often the last to see that we are, in fact, doing it.