How are you? I’m finally back in H-Town from my holidays visiting my sister in England before a little jaunt to NY. It was such a big trip for facing fears it’s lovely to finally be back to ‘normal’ life! I’ve tried to go back to England a few times recently, it’s been almost a year since my last visit, but it’s always felt wrong. I listen to my intuition, so I keep swerving away at the last moment. I was nervous this time too, but it finally felt right to go despite being scared, and when I started travelling the fear disappeared completely! I’ve been so introspective this year, so rediscovering giving my full attention to the external world was blissful, something I’m working on cultivating as ‘unselfconscious curiosity.’ It’s an innocent kind of feeling, seeing everything fresh and with compassion. The Goddess obviously had extra plans for my holiday, though, because after I decided to go I got stuck for days waiting for a seat on the plane! I relaxed into the pause and the ‘not-knowing’ of what would happen, and then, when I did finally travel, I was blessed by sweet synchronicities: my delay meant I arrived at the same time as friends also on visits back to Falmouth, a friend’s father ‘accidentally’ got on my train, despite being booked on a different one, then had a loud enough conversation about his daughter that I could recognise him, and a new friend was on holiday the same week so I got to spend more time with them…everything flowing perfectly…when I let it!
I lived in Falmouth for a decade before I moved to Texas, seeing the ocean from my windows, hearing the bustle at the docks, working the Sea Shanty Festival on Solstice weekend every year. But I’d never once been in the ocean! I was always scared of the sea, so I sat alone on the beach while friends went in. Texas has gifted big lessons this year, though, and my most beloved friends were going for a sea swim on the Gemini New Moon…so I decided it was time to let go of old fears and storylines, to show up and engage.
(I was very happy, and more than a little cold!)
It was nowhere near as scary as I’d imagined! On the scramble back around Pendennis point, I was reminded of meme I’ve seen about being ‘fearless’, and being in NYC I got thinking about the Fearless Girl statue, too.
(Courtesy of ‘Ambition Circle’…I could talk forever about how much I dislike this image.)
I really do think the idea of ‘fearlessness’ is silly. I don’t want to be a Fearless Anything. It’s over-simplified, and worse, it’s completely impossible to achieve! Being alive is scary – we want everything and everyone we love to be okay, but things can only be so stable in this constantly moving universe. Someone you love will get sick, or you’ll get sick, or the government will collapse, and then fear will pile into your safe space like a freight train.
I didn’t know it until quite recently, but when the fear-freight train crashes in you have some choice in how you react. The first time I met really big fear I wasn’t detached enough to recognise that I was scared and then to consciously choose what I wanted to do about it. What I wanted instead was to avoid the fear altogether, to pretend it didn’t exist. I used TV, food, booze, art, daydreaming, losing myself in dependent relationships with others…Avoiding fear long-term requires numbing and lying to yourself about being scared to increasingly great depths, tying you up in avoidance measures and causing you to stagnate as you retreat from pain. And if you’ve decided fearlessness is a good idea you also get to feel bad for failing at that!
So how can we do better than just aiming to be fearless?
When I was about 14, and still stuck under that freight train (but trying very hard to pretend it wasn’t there), a children’s welfare charity took on the challenge of talking to me and occasionally taking me for a walk. They sent a couple of women to work with me, and one of them, Ginny, gave me a parting gift as our time together ended. It was a book Ginny’s mother had given her (complete with a message of mother’s love inside), Susan Jeffer’s “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.” The crux of the book is not to try to be fearless, but to be afraid then act anyway. The idea was revolutionary when I was a kid – I could do shit despite being scared, fear didn’t have to stop me. It’s still life changing when I come back to it now.
‘Feeling the fear and doing it anyway’ is really succinctly illustrated in the “Five Truths of Fear”:
1: The fear will never go away as long as I continue to grow.
2: The only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out and do it.
3: The only way to feel better about myself is to go out…and do it.
4: Not only am I going to experience fear whenever I’m on unfamiliar territory, but so is everyone else.
5: Pushing through fear is less frightening than living with the underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness.
Read them twice! They’re so good!
You can see how my young attempts at numbing were never going to work, because the underlying fear that comes from feeling helpless is too huge to keep down for long. You can also see how buying into ‘fear = bad’, and ‘fearless = good’ turns feeling afraid into a signal that you’re in a situation that should be gotten out of. Then you’re avoiding everything that scares you, and you won’t be able to do anything different because ‘different’ is very often scary! If you want to grow you have to get out of your comfort zone, and that means letting go of the myth of fearlessness being desirable, and surrendering to feeling fear.
Generally, the more I act through, and despite of, being afraid, the more I grow and the bigger I get.
Generally….but I can’t abide by generalisations! My trip home also taught me about when I shouldn’t feel the fear and do it anyway.
The idea that fear (or discomfort) is a sign that something is an opportunity for growth is a really widespread trope, but one I’d never looked at critically. Only now am I seeing that fear or discomfort can’t always be a growth opportunity, that’s just too simple!
There are times when radical, impossible-to-define growth, self-love, and healing is also found in taking ourselves out of situations that make us scared or uncomfortable. Someone could call this ‘the easy way out,’ but it’s really the opposite. The ‘easy way out’ is blindly following the idea that whatever is harder is ‘better.’ Deciding when to step out of scary situations takes more effort because we have to assess each situation individually, we have to account for how complex doing the right thing for ourselves is. It’s more work than settling for a one-size-cares-for-all platitude like ‘move towards what you’re scared of’ or ‘you’re uncomfortable because you’re growing’. It’s tough to really listen to yourself. In inner territory you’ve got to draw your own map.
I wrote you recently about my overzealous seeking of growth and ‘good things’, about how my perfectionistic traits were pushing me too hard for things that I’m often lauded for working hard on, like growth or ‘healing.’ Part of aggressively chasing growth is that I always ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ and always move towards things that scare me.
In line with that, I was originally going to England to meet a challenge. After some soul-searching I turned away from the challenge, and instead went on a cheery, relaxing holiday. And I learnt so much self-compassion and self-respect from the choosing to nurture myself instead of subjecting myself to pointless suffering!
The critical word there being ‘pointless.’
How ‘pointless’ any discomfort, fear or suffering is will be subjective and complex, the point is to be sure you’re looking critically at why you’re doing the thing you’re scared of. In the past I’ve so rarely chosen not to put myself through every challenge or scary thing that came at me, I’d never considered that I was possibly putting myself through this for not much return. I always assumed a challenge is good simply because it’s hard…I never considered whether a challenge had a point that made it worth the suffering. Any discomfort means I’m growing, right? Right?!
Now I know to ask ‘is this useful?’ ‘What’s the point of this?’ ‘Is the fear here teaching me anything apart from how to suffer more?’ ‘Does this fear belong to someone else, or is it being put on me from outside, and I do need to take it on?’ and finally ‘Is this challenge nurturing me?’
I love a wider definition of ‘nurture’, one that encompasses things that are challenging but nurturing, but not challenges taken on in the spirit of self flagellation. From Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes:
“The difference between comfort and nurture is this: if you have a plant that is sick because you keep it in a dark closet, and you say soothing words to it, that is comfort. If you take out of the closet and put in the sun, give it something to drink, and then talk to it, that is nurture.”
Immediately after turning away from the challenge in England I was terrified that I had made the wrong choice. Should I have felt the fear and did it anyway? The worry passed quickly, and instead I felt amazing, totally free and full of possibility. I had stepped away from fear and suffering and nurtured myself, I had put me first. I didn’t have to be afraid, I have a choice. Taking on the challenge in England was originally self-compassion; I gifted myself an opportunity that I thought was desirable and growthful. Once I recognised how disproportionately afraid and stressed I was over it, though, a beloved companion encouraged me to seek what exactly I was suffering for, and whether it was worth it. Then my choice to not do the scary thing was an even greater act of self-love; I heard my deeper need for compassion, nurturing, and bringing my energy back to myself. I moved out of extrinsic ideas of where growth comes from, of blindly taking on anything that is hard, and learnt to trust myself that little bit more.
(One of my multiple inner Badass Motherfuckers, in a limited edition screenprint from earlier this year.)
The thing I find with these bolshy messages about ‘be fearless!’, like the meme at the start of my letter, is that they do kinda work, briefly, at making me feel a bit braver, a little more courageous, a bit closer to being a real badass, so I don’t want to be completely disparaging to these warrior-human messages. Sometimes you have to fake it ‘til you make it, and messages like this help with that. If we fake fearlessness it can bolster us to take the first step on something scary, and once we’ve got started it should be less scary to carry on. I figure this is the same as how I couldn’t leave the house as a teen without Marylin Manson in my headphones – even if it’s total bullshit, fake it well enough and we can convince ourselves we’re less scared, then in the actual doing of the thing we’re scared of we’ll eventually become less afraid. See ‘Five Truths of Fear’ numbers two and three!
I still think it’s possibly better to admit you’re scared, feel it, then decide to do the thing anyway, but whatever works, you know? I’ve done it. I call in my Badass Motherfucker, we hang out, chat shit, grab a beer, make some plans. Then the bits of me that are scared can pile in after Badass Motherfucker rolls up his sleeves (your Badass Motherfucker can be whatever gender you like) and cuts the beginning of a path through the dark forest.
Like a lot of messaging that’s meant to empower or inspire, the danger here is stopping at enjoying the powerful feelings ‘#fearless’ messages give us and not actually Doing the Scary Thing. I recently heard this called ‘vicarious participation.’ Films are a good example: if we watch a film where the character is brave and invincible we get to feel brave and invincible by proxy – we’re storytelling creatures. This is one of the many beautiful things about stories; we get to practise feelings, try on new identities. There’s a point where one could allow the pleasure of feeling brave through vicariously experiencing others being brave to placate their desire to do something brave themselves. We tell ourselves a story about how we’re a badass motherfucker, even though it’s not related to any of our actual actions or way of being in the world, in short, we delude ourselves. Vicariously participating in the story of fearlessness could hinder you from participating firsthand in it, from actually feeling the fear and then doing it anyway.
From William Blake: “He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence.”
So don’t rile up your Badass Motherfucker and do nothing with them afterwards. It’s a waste of their real, genuine useful qualities if nothing more!
(A scary sketch to do, inspired by a beloved friend-artist who is great at feeling the fear, & doing it anyway…)
Anyway, the path of least resistance is sometimes a good one to be on, depends on what’s needed. I’m working on accepting things, like flight delays, as they come, and trusting that whatever happens I’ll be a-okay. And not pushing so hard for what I assume I want or need. And doing a lot of turning towards joy.
How about you, beloved? How are you turning towards joy today?
We have a big few months coming up, how are you feeling here on the cusp of so many new beginnings?
My summer is pretty chock-a-block with travel, conferences, deadlines…all of which I’m trying to lean into with that unselfconscious curiosity… This last month, while I was away, I had my first pieces at Insomnia Gallery here in Houston, so thanks for those who went to look at (& sell!) my work while I was away. Mitch Cohen from The Leader newspaper in North Houston also interviewed me for his arts column on being a foreign artist here in H-Town recently. This is another instance of me feeling the fear and doing it anyway – being interviewed is definitely a scary new experience, but worth it for the experience, and the confidence boost!
In the coming weeks I’m balancing extroverted and introverted projects; making buying my work more accessible via the long (long, long) awaited opening of my Etsy shop, sourcing a manufacturer for a secret project that I’m excited about, as well as quieter work on some personal paintings and continuing work on my comic.
Anyway, blessed Capricorn Full Moon, and Mars retro in Aquarius! What a cacophony in the skies at the moment! Remember to be gentle with yourselves, and make sure you rest when you need it. We grow through working hard at the right challenges as well as letting go and surrendering. There’s a lot to gain from a good balance of nurturing courage with fearless warrior moments!
So much love to you,