What Are You Afraid Of?





I sat in the bleachers in the corner of the gym. My then three-year-old held her place on the mat doing jumping jacks, eyes glued to the instructor. They switched to a choreography of punches and kicks punctuated with diaphragmatic “HA” sounds. I had enrolled my firstborn, who had a tendency toward timidness, in karate to help develop her voice. She had punched through a wooden board by the end of her first lesson. 

Her burly instructor yelled, “How do we show courage?”

The chorus of preschoolers responded in unison, “We feel the fear and do it anyway.”

My ears perked up. Not only was this instructor pushing the limits of collective focus that I would have thought possible among a group of two dozen toddlers, but I also had never heard that particular interpretation of courage. Before that day in the gym, if you had asked me for a description of courage, I might have said ignoring your fear, or conquering your fear. I definitely would not have chosen “feeling” as the verb that connected fear to courage.

Without the benefit of an enlightened martial arts coach, children on the playground taunt each other with the admonition “scaredy-cat.” We get the message early on that it’s not cool to have fears. This behavior creeps into adulthood and into the workplace, and the phrase “fearless leader” is casually thrown about.

Is it a realistic expectation of ourselves or others to exist without fear? No matter how much is going on around us, we don’t actually need any justifications. To fear is to be human.

While fear is an ordinary occurrence, productive conversations around the topic are not the norm. Instead, we subject each other’s fears to playful ribbing at best and weaponization at worst. We stifle our own fears and doubts in an effort to fit an ideal of competence and confidence.

What could exist if we acknowledged and accepted fear in ourselves and in others? Perhaps, by lowering our guard, we become increasingly able to take advantage of the potential support network of others. While you can feel the fear alone, it’s much easier to “do it anyway” if you have the support of others. Maybe cracking the window open for others to witness your humanity inspires someone to believe that they too can accomplish greatness, because they see the full spectrum of their humanity in you. If you could stoke your courage, feel the fear, and do it anyway, what would you do?

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