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

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 in the May 2014 issue

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