A scorching hot, August sun incessantly beat down over New Jersey as electrifying screams reverberated far into the expansive and virtually endless rows of parked cars. The presence of my family there was merely a fraction in the midst of an immense crowd – thrill-seekers, teenagers, and families of every kind still lively and boisterous, even despite the ascension of mother nature’s thermometer. Adrenaline junkies had come from far and wide to fill their ever depleting tanks due to daily life trapped in the office; teenagers traipse around, encountering a newly found freedom from the dictatorship of their parent’s kingdom; young families spending time together out of the house – bonding, laughing, and enjoying a much needed break from the hustle and bustle of the daily grind.
The more popular rides on a hot day like that are the ones featuring water – a nice, cool break in marching from coaster to coaster waiting in hot, ostensibly endless lines. That seems to be the real “theme” when spending a day at the theme park – wait in line for three hours to ride a coaster for three minutes, but we do it nonetheless because we’re all presumably robots. But, it gives us a chance to have conversations with our friends or family; it gives us a chance to bitch and complain about our lives; it gives us the opportunity to brush up on the art of combating enormous amounts of bees – trapped in line, there’s really nowhere to run and we’re forced to confront our fear of these tiny, little ninja black and yellow bastards. Even with all this going on in our frenzied state, we’re feverishly scoping out the area for line cutters; the equivalent to murderers and rapists in the world outside a theme park; when spotting a violator, our minds automatically think, “where’s the guillotine!?” – don’t lie to yourself, you know you think it.
We waited in line to ride the log flume for a while before it was finally our turn. I sat in the back, holding my two-year old daughter in front of me; my wife (at the time) sat in the middle holding our son in front of her. At first, the ride was calm and refreshing – my little girl was having a blast, gazing around, taking in new sights, sounds, and smells. She giggled as splashes of water breached the wall of our log and sprinkled over her as if the clear blue sky was producing a mid-afternoon rain shower. We were genuinely bonding, laughing, and enjoying time together as father and daughter when suddenly the mood shifted. Looming just ahead, the calm tube of water we had been meandering through disappeared, opening up into a wide view of the park below; the only way from here was straight down. As we reached the point of no return, the grasp my daughters hands had on my arms transformed from lightly resting to super-human strength – digging her nails into me and holding on for dear life – by the time we reached the bottom she had actually left marks on my forearms. She had experienced true, certifiable fear – and fear, in all its varied forms, is what holds us all back from experiencing the extraordinary and achieving greatness.
Don Miguel Ruiz talks about fear in his book on Toltec wisdom entitled, The Four Agreements, “If we look at human society we see a place so difficult to live in because it is ruled by fear. Throughout the world we see human suffering, anger, revenge, addictions, violence in the street, and tremendous injustice. It may exist at different levels in different countries around the world, but fear is controlling the outside dream.” He goes on to say, “That is why humans resist life. To be alive is the biggest fear humans have. Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive – the risk to be alive and express what we really are. Just being ourselves is the biggest fear of human beings.”
I can remarkably relate to what he describes here, especially as an alcoholic and feeling that overwhelming desire to numb life out altogether – my personal fear of the risks involved to be truly alive, but I have come to find and play around with two large subcategories within myself that, although contradictory, would be the biggest personal fears I face on the grander of scales: Fear of succeeding and fear of failing – I wrote letters to each, as suggested through sessions in therapy.
Dear Acheivemephobia (fear of success),
We have navigated paths together periodically, seemingly always embodied in a temporary transaction of good fortune, true love, consummated promises, and tremendous achievement. You actually dangled the keys to all my wildest dreams right before my very eyes – even passed them over, providing a peek into a world I could exist in; keys that would unlock doors of happiness and joy; fulfillment and purpose; like I somehow matter and have a secure, resolute place in this world. An advancing career with a great income, a gorgeous wife, beautiful children, a house, two SUV’s, a loving family and in-laws – you tantalizingly let me form an intense attachment to it all for a while, before savagely retracting your offer, leaving me crippled; critically incapable of accepting the truth, consequences, or real world circumstances of what was literally unraveling; my perfect excuse to numb it all out and be absent from the torment; from the anguish; but mostly from the heartache.
For lack of a better word, I’m completely PETRIFIED of you. I yearn to set goals for myself; I crave to live out my dreams; I long for my son and daughter to grow up; notice me as that success story; a dad to be loved and respected; a dad that lives with dignity, integrity, and class – who didn’t throw a potentially meaningful life away – who overcame the captivity of a vicious disease for so many years. Yet still I’m afraid to try and reach or live them; to get back to that place I worked so hard to arrive at, just to have it snatched away once more – I don’t believe I could handle it; hell, I couldn’t really handle the situation I’m in now.
The things I had were never enough for me; I suffer from an adversity that virtually could not allow me to ever feel totally successful in the first place; something, somewhere was perpetually superior to what I had or where my life was heading; I felt stagnant; stationary; essentially lifeless; in other words, the “I’ll be happy when I get…” mentality prevailed steady within my being. It was discouraging to say the least, arguably incapacitating because I could not locate the motivation to even grant success a fair opportunity to enter into my existence. I really hadn’t formulated a running definition of what success looked like for me anyhow.
My only saving grace will have to arrive through connection with a power greater than myself; God; a guiding light who reveals the genuinely legitimate way towards prosperity; to help me comprehend that there is a very distinct difference between what I actually need and what I think I need for wealth and well-being. Success is in the daily journey; doing good deeds and helping people in need, not any form of self-seeking final destination because, in all reality, when my time is up, I can’t take any of the material things with me; the things I coveted more than anything else; the stuff that gave me the illusion of success. I can, however, look back on my adventures through all the trials and tribulations of dark times; be proud of what I was able to accomplish and overcome; the changes I made in myself, and the way I was able to finally understand how to live with honesty and integrity. In my book and in my mind that will be genuine and authentic success.
Dear Atychiphobia (fear of failure),
I nervously took in the sight of you from my vicinity opposite the room; I was quivering and trembling so you instinctively took notice of me as well, peering diabolically back as our eyes laser locked on to each other like past lovers in the dead of an eerie night – time stood still; it was haunting, yet mysterious – I sensed I knew you and your self-professed irresistibility; by all means I wanted to confront, but my fear was so intoxicating; a paralyzing intimidation; an obvious advertisement of apprehension that left me unable to allow myself the engagement in that desirable showdown. I can still feel your laughter and pity virtually every day of my life – it resonates within the confines of my head; it produces still more fear, embarrassment, disappointment, and an extreme sense of low self-worth. You have that influence over me; a perplexing power to command my surrender; to make me throw in the towel – waive that immaculate white flag. As soon as I perceive your alluring vibe in my presence, I dwindle into a morsel of the man I fiercely want to be; I want to be strong and courageous; exhibiting respect, exuding integrity, and transmitting the wisdom of my experiences to those who may be traveling down the same ill-fated path I have been tirelessly trudging for far too long now. In lieu of elevating to the coveted status of, “Knight in Shining Armor”, I turn timid and hesitant; I become the soul crushing, seemingly heartless beast that lets everything and everybody down because I’m so afraid to revoke your perpetual power over my contemptible condition. This incapacitating phobia of you is like struggling against quicksand – the tougher I try, the more I’m sucked in.
You have remarkably presented the case to judge and jury that I could never be desirable or good enough. So much so in fact that I might as well plead guilty and accept the plea bargain which, to say the least, is an ego-crushing blow; like I shouldn’t even make an attempt at constructing or rehabilitating a worthier life for myself because it’s only outcome is failure anyhow; if I don’t try; if I just plead out, I cannot fail; essentially that takes you off the table altogether; it relinquishes your power over me and then you’re the one that dwindles away into nothingness or at least becomes forced to go leach off somebody else for a change. However, deep in our beings, we both know that this is an unlikely scenario. You’d likely still cast me down into the ever blackening abyss no matter what I do or don’t achieve, or how I perform, subsequently leaving behind the broken shell of a man that maybe could have done great things in the absence of your influential oppression. I always wonder what people think when you have me held tight within your indomitable grasp, like a serpent squeezes the life from its prey; how interest must finally be lost in me or if folks have smartened up and just conceded to my inevitable demise altogether; how I’m forever broken, that’s just the way it is, and no more time, energy, worry or effort should be afforded the issue – lock me away in a padded cell somewhere and get it over with; at least family, friends, and society at large would be a little bit safer.
It’s been said time and time again that contrary action can be an effective source of solving a problem or conquering an issue – contrary action is, for all intents and purposes, doing the opposite of what’s deemed comfortable, living outside one’s comfort zone; do the opposite of what feels normal or what the instinctual action might be. For example, if I were afraid of the water, I should get on a boat and dive right in; if I drink too much soda, it would be wise to start drinking more water and phase the soda out. This leads me to believe that the only way I’ll conquer my fear of you, being failure, is by facing you head on; by taking contrary action; approaching what I could only ever see as the unapproachable; dart across that room and show you I’m not a scared little boy and I know you’ll always be there in my life from time to time, but it’s okay; understanding that if and when I fail, there are lessons to be learned and ultimately growth to be obtained. You don’t have to be intimidating or diabolical or even paralyzing – but rather educational; a means in which to learn what ways do and don’t work. As long as I can take you for exactly what you are: opportunities to find a better, more effective way to accomplish the task at hand and provide a much more meaningful and fulfilling life, not just for me, but for those whose lives I impact on a regular or even daily basis.