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

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.

First published in the May 2014 issue

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