I tell my students at the Vancouver Gatherings that fear is the greatest barrier to creativity. I tell them to bring their fears into the light, to give their fears a chance to say their piece, then to call bullshit and move on. I tell them this because the alternative is to leave our fears muttering to us from the shadows, the unknown places of our lives. They tell us we’re not good enough, or more reasonably, that we’d be better off waiting until we are ready, whatever that means. And so we occupy ourselves with the tasks our fears set for us, all of them benign enough that we rarely sit up and notice we’ve gone days, months, even years without doing our work, our art.
In the more intimate conversations about this stuff I acknowledge my own fears, only to get that confession brushed aside as often as not, as though the cumulative voices of 40 years of my own fears can be silenced by a few published books, 25,000 Twitter followers, and the fact that in the eyes of others you’ve “made it.” Our fears don’t lie down that easily.
I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’ve shot my last good photograph. I’m afraid I’ve written my last compelling sentence, that my words don’t touch as deeply or resonate as honestly as I hope. I’m afraid I’m repeating myself. I’m afraid my harshest critics are right. I’m afraid the muse, from whom I make my life and my living, will abandon me and my ideas run dry. I’m afraid my work won’t measure up to even my own standards. And I’m afraid (listen up, Alanis Morisette, because this is truly ironic,) that fear will hold me back.
So because I will never be the man that lives without fear, I give those fears a chance to be heard. I let them run, once in a while, like children on the back lawn, loud and cacophonous, until they wear themselves out. And as they do so I listen to their voices. Small. Shrill. Fueled more by imagination than truth. If not by imagination, then by memories; how many of us still hearing the voice of a kid at school who mocked us for being different, or the voice of an adult, who should have known better, telling us to grow up? Down that kind of tunnel those voices only amplify.
And so I tell my students that it’s true. That if they risk and fail, they will, most likely die. Or wind up horribly maimed. And they stare at me blankly until the absurdity of it makes them laugh.
If the studies are to be believed, more North Americans fear speaking in public than they fear death. If you ever needed an illustration of the absurd power of our fears, it’s that. But it’s not that people fear standing up. Nor opening their mouths. It’s the fear of our voice being heard. It’s the fear of rejection. Of failure. And for some, the fear that we’ll succeed and have to do it again.
Where, I wonder, is the fear that we’ll waste our lives, that we’ll go to the grave our voices unheard? Fear’s a poor motivator, but it strikes me odd that it never drives us forward with the same vigour with which it holds us back.
Our problem, I think, is not that we fear. We fear instinctively. It’s as natural to us as breathing. In some cases, it’s that fear that keeps us alive, though more often I suspect it’s what keeps us from truly living. Our problem is that we listen to that fear whispering “What if?” to us and we don’t take that question out of the shadows and hold it to the light. Fear only asks us the questions; it’s not answering that question, letting the uncertainty gain momentum in the silence, that holds us back.
What if people don’t like it?
They won’t. Not all of them. Do it anyways. Do it for you.
What if you fall down?
You will. Pick yourself up. Try again.
What if it’s hard?
It will be. It’s worth it. Do it anyways.
What if I embarrass myself?
You will. Take a bow. Laugh. Do it again. It’s only those on the bleachers, bound by their own fears, who will mock instead of cheer. Pity them. Or hope that your grace will give them the courage to get out of their seats.