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.

First published in the May 2014 issue

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