Episode 1: Paradoxical Fear

I hate fear.

What is it? That thing you dread? Ugh, I hate even the word dread. The idea that there is something coming that I cannot comprehend fully, predict remotely, or control entirely. The idea of the unknown. I think we shudder at the concept that perhaps the unknown will not turn out as we hope (which, humorously enough, it usually doesn’t). Yet despite all this, the unknown tends to also be the space in our life that creates the highly necessary room for adventure, laughter, romance, discovery.. the unknown.

So peculiar then, how we exist in a culture of paradoxes: on one hand encouraging us to grow up, get “real jobs”, and successfully place all the unknowns in our lives into neat little boxes. Do you fear being alone? No problem, meet him online and be satisfied. (Emotionally, physically, you name it). Do you fear looking stupid? No worries, get your Masters degree… no one will question you then. How about the old classic? Fear of what others think of you? Ahhhh, we have a myriad of solutions to that. Social media accounts, networking programs, makeup, plastic surgery, braces, steroids, contact lenses, spray tans, photoshop… the list goes on and on and on. We spend the greater part of our young lives becoming experts (or attempting to) at curating our lives to the degree that we may have minimal contact with this demon called fear of the unknown. We are socialized at a young age to crave and desire normalacy in every unkown aspect of our lives. We are trained to be afraid. For many moons children have been raised to fear being alone (hello, buddy system) yet dispositionally also to fear strangers (never get in a car with a man offering candy, DUH). We’re cautioned about everything that can be seen, explained, or experienced without a capable adult chaperone present. The unknown.

Do we ever outgrow this tendency to fear?

Think about it. Have you ever broken or lost your cell phone? How do you make plans to meet a friend? Find that new restaurant? What do you do when you’re in a crowded room with strangers, waiting for the bus, filling up that empty space and time? We are utterly crippled by the concept that perhaps our plans may not work out, and we will be faced with space and time in …the unknown. It’s the same level fear factor in a milenial heart as the upsidedown in Stranger Things. We are paralyzed by it (maybe not literally, but quite honestly it throws most of us for quite a loop).

I’m personally fascinated by this… I’m gonna take a little rabbit trail, but bear with me and hopefully it leads us all somewhere. One of my favorite little spots in Thailand is Koh San Road, in Bangkok. It’s actually pretty miserable – hot, sweaty, and full of vendors trying to swindle you or convince you to try deep fried cockroaches (not good, btw). The reason I love it is because you rub shoulders with every imaginable traveller. There are the ones who look like they’ve just stepped out of an eight month trek through the Himalayas and have forgotten how to engage socially, the gorgeous Europeans wandering around in bikinis, and the Americans (obvious by their attempts to pay for Thai food with USD).  There are even Thai people, go figure. Most of the travellers I encountered there were on some form of journey desperately seeking this place we’re trained to fear. The unknown. Mind you, some are on journey only for a week (the approximate time society has mandated as “appropriate” as far as taking time off work and exploring new lands goes). But some people I ran into had left home intending to only be gone 8 days… and boom, they’d been in Southeast Asia for 8 months.

What switched? What is the trigger that leads some to crave what we are taught, trained, and grow to fear?

If you read this hoping for an answer I may disappoint you. I’m still trying to figure that out. I’ve gotten to a place where I can catch myself slipping into patterns of ‘safety’… I guess is the best word. Not in a healthy sense, my safety habits pop up when I demonize my fears. They pop up in a desperate attempt to control anxiety and plan out my life to the perfect degree. They pop up when I choose comfort and routine over helping someone else, stretching and growing myself, or a challenge that will benefit me in the long run. When I begin to crave everything I think will keep me away from the unkown, I know I’ve lost my mark. If there is currently no person or situation in your life that makes you feel even the slightest bit uncomfortable, then perhaps you too have forgotten that the unknown is good. It’s not just good, it is necessary.

It is big and it is wide and it is terrifying when you haven’t stepped out of your comfort zone in a while.

But once you’re out, I guarantee you’ll wonder how you ever managed to live so small. Once you’re out, you leave fears in the dust. Once you’re out, your dreams suddenly multiply, and the things you used to think were “too good” or “not for you” suddenly become attainable.

When I stepped out of my comfort zone, I became hungry for life to come throw its best sucker punch, just so I got the chance to punch back. When I stepped out, my creativity began to flow again. When I stepped out, I was met with opportunities and new experiences. Looking back, I think that’s when I first put my toes on the line of the unknown.

It’s a lot like going backwards. It’s very reminiscent of childhood. You leap first, and your brain catches up later and tries to scare you into submission. (Think the first time you attempted a back flip on your friend’s trampoline kinda fear).

So how do you go from half-assed back flips to quitting your job and travelling alone for a year? How do you leave the fear of the unknown behind, in order to chase it down instead?

I think it comes with recognition of the moments that provide all the reasons in the world to be absolutely, totally, 100% unequivocally afraid. Followed closely by refusal to give those fears any merit or control over future decisions.

I think that is true bravery, stepping out of a comfort zone.


(photo by @wake.up.matt)