I watched one of my favorite movies last night called “Defending your life,” with Albert Brooks. Although there have been hundreds of books and movies that speculate about what happens to us when we die, this movie did it in a way that has stuck with me since I first saw it when I was a kid. The premise is, that at the end of your life a small panel of judges examines 10 or so representative days of your life to see if you have conquered your fear during the duration of your time on earth. If they found you had, you got to move on to a higher level of consciousness, if not, you got sent back to earth to do it all over again.
The thing that resonated with me so much about this process was the emphasis on the role that fear played in determining the quality of a person’s existence, and how, according to the movie, our lives came down to a small handful of choices that gauged how much we allowed fear to influence our most important and pivotal choices.
When I first watched the movie I was a teenager, and found this to be a powerful way to think about living my life. Beyond morality or stability or security, I wanted to become truly fearless in my life, and shortly afterward took to the road. At the time I was, in my own mind, living a life without fear, perhaps even recklessly so. I spent my twenties traversing our great county, working in 5 of our national parks, traveling, performing comedy, and slinging a whole lot of liquor both as a bartender as well as a patron. Taking stock at the age of 30, I realized I had covered a lot of ground, but had little to show for my behavior but a lot of wonderful memories. A priceless thing to be sure, but it was at this point in my life that I first began to question if fearlessness was the only value worth living for.
Somewhere around this time I began to understand that there was a difference between conquering one’s fear and simply living in pursuit of pure hedonism. On a grand scale, conquering your fear was an amazing thing. It helped me bungee jump, get on stage as a terrified performer, travel into worlds unknown again and again, and hang out with a few women drastically over my head.
I look upon that period of my life with great nostalgia, but now, having been a therapist for several years, I have a little different take on tackling fear in our lives, and I find my position has changed a bit since the days of my sky-diving, hard-drinking youth.
You see I don’t think fear is conquered on a grand scale, although I certainly thought that for many years of my life. No I think the battle with fear is encompassed in a million little moments of our lives. The person we lock eyes with who we don’t quite work up the nerve to talk to. The promotion at work we don’t apply for because we don’t think we’re good enough. These are the little battles we face all the time, and as days give way to years, these are the choices that become the stories of our lives.
Even beyond these things however, there lies another layer of fear that rests at the deepest core of our psyches. This is the stuff we deny and put away on the back shelves of our minds to deal with on some faraway rainy day. This is the stuff that speaks to our deepest feelings of inadequacy and unclaimed baggage from the wounds that we never quite got around to dealing with. Stephen King describes this eloquently, saying, “So do we pass the ghosts that haunt us later in our lives; they sit undramatically by the roadside like poor beggars, and we see them only from the corners of our eyes, if we see them at all. The idea that they have been waiting there for us rarely if ever crosses our minds. Yet they do wait, and when we have passed, they gather up their bundles of memory and fall in behind, treading in our footsteps and catching up, little by little.”
So how do we stare these ghosts down? Some of the ways that have worked for me are honesty and laughter, which at least in my life are intertwined in a kind of perfect union. All of those things, those little nagging things I don’t always like about myself? We’ve all got a box that’s full of them, and sharing them in a funny way is both liberating as well as generative. Others can use them, learn from them, and through your own self-deprecating spin on these things perhaps begin to diffuse the power of some of their own fears. This is our shared absurdity as human beings, and so often the only thing that separates intense disappointment and fantastic shared laughter is a little time and perspective. It’s a useful idea to keep in mind that has personally helped me conquer a lot of my own fears, both large and small.