What it Means to Live Fearlessly

Courage is not about living without fear. It’s about learning to act in spite of it. Here, three women grapple with what scares them most—and emerge stronger for it

by Elizabeth McCracken, Lynn Darling and Fernanda Eberstadt
Photograph: Illustrated by Guyco

Take a Leap
By Elizabeth McCracken

For much of my life, I aspired to remain fearless in the way that other people remain gluten free: by avoiding the substance. There weren’t so many things that frightened me, after all. I embraced heights, I didn’t mind flying, I scooped up and rescued spiders, I was once at the circus and a very short clown pinched me on the bottom and I was unafraid. I was shy, but I ascribed this to being simply uninterested in meeting new people, or going to parties, or speaking in public. Not fear.

If I did feel a flicker of panic as I sat on a plane, or waited for a test result from a doctor, I knew how to comfort myself. Some people dispel fears with religious faith. My god was statistics. I would run the numbers and feel safe, or at least safe enough.

What I feared was fear itself. I was a phobophobe. I don’t think I could watch a horror movie for a million dollars; I couldn’t go through an amusement park haunted house under any circumstances. The prospect of being afraid incapacitated me. My evolutionary response was neither fight nor flight: I was an animal who, in all dangerous circumstances, played dead.

Still, for many years, not much of ordinary life scared me, or so I thought. The usual terrors—my own death, the death of people I loved—seemed like bridges to be crossed later.

(I was also not afraid of bridges.)

I married late (though I was not afraid of marriage). I was 38 when I first got pregnant, and 39 when our first child was stillborn. I had not been afraid of much during my pregnancy. I had been placid, waiting for all the bridges I knew I’d encounter and then waddling over them. After the stillbirth, my earlier attitude seemed like lunacy. Everything terrified me. Statistics, whether they concerned plane crashes or home invasions or sudden heart attacks, were no comfort: I had fallen on the wrong side of them; I was fallen. I can only compare my situation to a loss of religious faith in the wake of disaster, without the chance you might find your way back to an even stronger belief.

The question, of course, was whether I should try to get pregnant again.

I was frightened that I wouldn’t be able to have another child; I was frightened of trying for years and ending up in the same place. All my low-level social anxiety was amplified: I wanted to see no human beings other than my husband. The grocery store scared me. Crossing the street. I was terrified by the idea of getting pregnant and spending every day for nine months in a state of fear. A child gestated in fear would surely be a fearful child, and what about afterward? Surely I would make a terrified mother. I was a character in a silent melodrama, surrounded by peril: wild animals all around me, and a cliff the only way out. I didn’t know what to fear first or for how long.

But I was a woman nearing 40. I didn’t have time to deliberate. I think I had come to understand what the fearless already know: Fearlessness is an accounting trick. You feel the fear; you just defer it.

I could stand on the cliff immobile, feeling terrified, or I could leap and feel the terror while falling.

That is what I did.

My incredibly lucky second pregnancy, and my third, both while in my forties, involved much more worry than the first but ended happily. What I learned: Fear does not burn out, but sometimes the shadows cast by the thing you’re afraid of are larger and more frightening than the thing itself. I tell my writing students this about things they don’t want to write about. If you get close, the thing that scares you may turn out to be only ugly and interesting and useful, not fatal. I keep this in mind and am less afraid of fear than I used to be. I’m more afraid of other things, though: death, public speaking, cocktail parties. That’s the bargain I made, and it seems like a good one.

Recently, Matilda—my daughter, five years old, born when I was 42; you don’t have to tell me how lucky I am, statistically speaking—lamented the disappearance of the dodo. We did some reading. The dodo disappeared because it had evolved with no predators in Mauritius, and when the island and bird were discovered by sailors, the dodo didn’t know to run away. The dodo was no dodo, merely inexperienced and (these things happen) also delicious. It was eaten into history, by human beings and the animals (pigs, dogs) they brought with them.

The dodo was fearless. The dodo is extinct. As for me, I fear and persevere.

ELIZABETH McCRACKEN is the author of five books, including a memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, and the just published Thunderstruck & Other Stories.

Get Angry
By Lynn Darling

A few years ago, the summer my only child left home for college, I moved from an apartment in New York City to live on my own in a small house at the end of a dirt road in the woods of central Vermont.

At the time, I thought it was an extremely rational decision, but reason had nothing to do with it. No, I had gone to ground the way an animal does, because I was wounded and beaten and in need of retreat.

My daughter’s departure left questions, big questions that the warm hive of family life had made easy to ignore, of who to be and how to live; of what, if anything, I wanted in this new and awkward phase of middle age. I was no longer a mother, I had long been a widow, even my work seemed to have lost its value. I had no idea of who I was or what I wanted.

If I thought the move would reveal the answers to any of these questions, I was mistaken. Alone, in a strange house in unfamiliar territory, I felt only fear. I was afraid of the past and the regrets that loomed large; afraid of the future, which had no discernible shape; afraid of myself and my possible inability to cope. Before long, I had drifted into a deep, dreamy lassitude, a warm downy burrow in which to hide.

I’m not sure how long this state of affairs would have continued. But I got lucky:
I got breast cancer.

That diagnosis is a particularly scary one, but it could have been any major illness, any catastrophe with the power to smash a hole through your life. Suddenly, all the aimless, shapeless fears that had paralyzed me galvanized into an adamantine metal, sharp and shiny, of pure terror.

In the months that followed, I did what we all do: endured the treatment and haunted the Internet, looking for information, facts, statistics, anything that would help me define what I was up against, what the odds were, how long the future would stretch.

Those were the big questions, but behind them crowded a smaller, more insidious, more dangerous one. Why fight, my fear whispered. Maybe cancer was the dreadful but simple answer to all the questions of who I was and what I wanted. And the seductiveness of that idea, of giving up, made me most afraid.

One night, my brain and soul colonized by chemo, I looked up from the sofa in the living room and stared out into the inky night, which was all I could see beyond the French doors that gave onto the woods. I saw something, an image, lit by lamplight, in one of the panes of glass. It was large and pale and glowing, and I was puzzled at first as to what living thing had braved the unforgiving New England winter. I looked harder. It was an enormous white egg. No—it was a face.

An old man’s face, oval as an egg, pale and nearly featureless, and bald, with a pair of thick brown spectacles, a puffy face wearing a quizzical expression.

My face.

I stared. Fascinated, repelled by this new version of myself, an old bespectacled eggheaded man. Me and not me. I called him Augustus Egg, after a Victorian painter who looked nothing like the reflection in the mirror but whose name was perfectly suited to the image I saw in the window that night.

Mr. Egg became my alter ego, the face of the anger I hadn’t known I had but the conduit also for my dawning understanding of a new path before me. Looking at what I had become, I began to see how my illness was a distillation, a preview perhaps, of what we all go through as we age, as our bodies change, as the immortality we once rode as if it were a shiny red bicycle crashes to the ground.

Anger—at the awful, wonderful, immense uncertainty of life—is a wonderful thing. It burned through my fear, dismissed my questions and finally brought me back to someone I had lost a long, long time ago, a part of myself that had been buried under the ever-accreting roles we adopt as we grow up and older: gawky adolescent, anarchic young flirt, wife, mother, aging middle-aged woman. What I found at the heart of the fear and the pain was a small, fragile, furious being, one without roles, without insecurities, without even the corset of self-consciousness, a being who wanted nothing more than to live, a self who would fight on her own terms, blindly, willfully and obstinately, and wasn’t afraid to do so.

I was overwhelmed by the tenderness I felt for that creature. She had a lot of plans, that one. I reckoned the least I could do was stick around for the ride.

Lynn Darling’s latest book is Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding.

Redefine Courage
By Fernanda Eberstadt

When I was young, I was unusually addicted to cheap thrills. All those hormones that were originally designed to enable girls to give birth in a ditch and boys to fend off saber-toothed tigers combined in me big time to make me fearless. The only hitch was, I had no moral convictions that might channel my hankering after trouble into some heroic or uplifting cause. I was just the kid who headed down dark alleys to find out what lay at the other end; a narcissistic teenager with too much weekly allowance and a need to see how far I could push things before I finally found a limit. Looking back now, I realize that my particular form of fearlessness—an indifference to physical safety—was based on the privileged child’s assumption that the world was a sunny, welcoming place where I would always be protected by well-intentioned people who had a lot more sense than I did.

What scared me into caution?

Age, for starters. Experience. The steady accumulation of hurts, setbacks, encounters with sickness, death and tragedy, which gradually shock the heedless pup into a wiser dog.

In my freshman year at Oxford, I went one Sunday to a steeplechase: an occasion to get mad-drunk in the fickle English sunshine while pretending to watch amateur jockeys jump hurdles. When the last of the revelers dispersed, I caught a ride back to college with a carload of students even drunker than I was. These were the days before Mothers Against Drunk Driving or speed traps, when seat belts were an inconvenience to be ignored. Five of us crammed into a Mini, with me across everyone’s lap in the back. I still get flashbacks to the moment the car went somersaulting over a hedge on a twisty country bend. I remember awakening to find myself lying on my back in a cold, wet field, whimpering, and my later dismay when the hospital medic took a pair of scissors and cut me out of the snappy new overcoat I’d just bought. We were lucky, my fellow passengers and I. I came out of it with a broken pelvis that still aches in damp weather and an incurable fear of cars. But by the end of the year, the driver—a brilliant scholarship boy who was the hope of his family—had passed out one night and choked to death on his vomit.

By the time I turned 30, too many of my friends had died, from either AIDS or accidents, drugs or suicide. The world had come to seem darker, more precarious, a sheet of broken glass where everything you touched could make you bleed. My own recklessness appeared a teen throwback that needed to be shelved, along with my skin-tight satin jeans and hot-pink platforms.

And then there was love. When I was 32, I married Alastair, who liked to climb mountains and ski glaciers but in whom the love of outdoor adventure was tempered by a prudence I respected. With marriage and the birth of our two children came the late but joyously humbling revelation that my body and my life were not mine alone to gamble away at the roulette table.

Still, my old daredevil impulses occasionally resurface. One summer, we went to stay with friends in Vermont who took us to a waterfall, where swimmers climbed up to a stone ledge and leapt into the pool far below. The other adults jumped, one by one; my daughter, Maud, then two years old, begged me not to follow. When I returned to her—dripping, a bit abashed—Maud, in my husband’s arms, turned her face away and refused to speak to me. It was a sobering role reversal, this realization that my toddler had been scared stiff that her crazy mother was going to break her neck!

Now my children are almost grown, and I’m the scaredy-cat who’s begging Maud to text me as soon as her plane lands, or watching heartsick as my rugby-playing son Theo’s head disappears under someone else’s metal-studded boots. Today fearlessness to me means something very different from jumping into a watering hole. It means moral courage: Malala Yousafzai, enduring Taliban gunfire in order to fight for girls’ education; or the Pussy Riot activists, young mothers newly freed from the Russian work camp who are once again courting prison for denouncing Vladimir Putin’s malign autocracy. The truly fearless—the battle-scarred who repeatedly throw themselves into the fray, knowing the full import of all they have to lose—give the rest of us the hope to speak out against the small injustices we encounter and to stick up for what we think is right. I will never be as fearless as I was at 20, but I have a far surer sense of what’s worth fighting for. 

FERNANDA EBERSTADT, a novelist and nonfiction writer living in London, is the author of six books, including The Furies, Little Money Street and, most recently, Rat.

Next: 71 Ways to Bust Your Rut Now

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First Published Fri, 2014-04-18 09:19

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