Last year, I tried to help my daughter conquer the rite of passage which is riding a bicycle. While she was being scared and uncomfortable, I was becoming more and more frustrated. I was completely powerless, at the mercy of her fears, unable to inspire her to complete a task I knew she was capable of doing. Fear builds a consequence of failure which is greater than the consequences we actually face, making us think we’re stumbling off-balance along the volcano’s edge. It’s frustrating for everybody willing to help us because they can’t pluck the fearful thoughts from our minds. Unchecked, it can keep us from truly being ourselves.

A quick side note: I realized as I was writing this that I was using “we” a lot. We fear. We think. We perceive. I saw that I was doing that not because I was talking about the general human experience, but because I was hiding myself within some anonymous group I named “we.” Since this blog post is talking about fears, I decided it would be better if I owned my fears rather than hiding them in a big fear bucket.

I Must Not Fear

“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”

― Litany Against Fear, from Dune by Frank Herbert

Fear tree courage self-esteem
Where fear has risen, courage may grow

Fear is useful. It’s a survival instinct which tells me that I’m reaching a point where the risks may be outweighing the rewards. I fear the things I think have a significant chance of causing me to come short of my needs. The important thing to remember is that the part of my brain that decides to feel fear can only see the world through the filter of my own perceptions. If I think bees, closed-in spaces, or clowns – I blame Stephen King – not only can but will harm me, then I come to fear those things, even if real evidence tries to inform me to the contrary.

This is an important distinction; fear itself isn’t a lie. My thoughts and perceptions, however, are frequently suspect. When I fear a result, I play the scenario out over and over again in my mind coming to the same result, and then decide that the result that I fear is the most likely result from that scenario. That creates a shortcut for me, where I automatically assume that certain tasks are doomed to failure. Sometimes, I’m right. But more frequently, I’m making assumptions based on flawed information.

There’s an idea permeating our culture that fear’s opposite is courage. We describe a soldier who takes selfless action under enemy fire as “fearless,” but nothing could be further from the truth. A courageous person doesn’t shut down the fear risk-versus-reward equation in their head and make their little fear-demons hide in the corner. They aren’t tricking their perceptions to pretend that the risk doesn’t exist. What has changed for them is their priorities. The courageous soldier isn’t unafraid of getting shot, they’ve simply put the value of their team and their mission ahead of their life. A courageous person doesn’t ignore fear at all. They look for it actively. They use it to identify what they value, weigh if that value is true to their priorities, and see their fear for what it is: an opportunity to be courageous.

I Will Face My Fear

“I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.”

― Litany Against Fear, from Dune by Frank Herbert

Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the solution to it. I think of courage as the mental system that allows me to identify the fear, determine I am fearing it, and evaluate my perceptions. The more I practice this courage, the stronger I become. I can have the courage to be vulnerable, to possess joy, to pursue what is important to me. I can be my true self, defined by what I value instead of what I fear.

The things I fear are directly correlated to the things I most strongly value. When I want something for my life, I imagine what that would be like. The more important it is to me, the more I imagine it. I live this fantasy over and over, failure after failure, without ever making an actual attempt. I see those things as the things I can least afford to lose, inflating any risk against them. I eventually come to the conclusion that it’s better to avoid the risk altogether by simply not doing what I want.

Sometimes that means taking a close look at my priorities and determining if they’re things that I truly want to define me. I grew up with a strong fear of being socially disconnected, and thus suppressed many of the qualities that would have allowed me to stand out as an individual. I allowed that fear to persist until there was a strong disconnect between who I was and how I allowed myself to be perceived. That fear became self-reinforcing: if I discontinued this charade of self, I would lose what connections I had.

Where the Fear Has Gone

“…there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

― Litany Against Fear, from Dune by Frank Herbert

Becoming my true self and helping others find their true selves is at the core of my photography. If the image I capture doesn’t have some type of personal authenticity, it doesn’t resonate. It can be technically proficient, even strong, but it’s not me. In fact, this whole idea of becoming myself is at the core of just about everything I love. Role-playing lets me explore facets of my personality in an environment which is typically pretty tolerant, even praising, of being weird. Music lets me engage with my emotions and act in ways that seems less appropriate when there’s no music to be heard. Photography lets me bring self-visualizations and symbols to visible images. And writing, well writing helps me to discover myself, so long as I’m willing to have the courage and vulnerability to own what is me. This attempt towards building a photography career is more than just self-actualization. It’s self-realization.

Each of these things carries an associate fear: rejection, ridicule, financial ruin. Pursuing my dreams, then, means examining those fears, discarding what is unreasonable, accepting what is real, and acknowledging that it’s better to choose what problems I should face rather than run blindly into whatever problems may come. The problem of rejection has the solution of community. The fear of ridicule has the solution of self-confidence. And the fear of financial ruin has the solution of using good business and savings practices. If I’m going to truly be honest with myself, then I must be honest with everybody, including myself, about who I truly am. I can only hope that I can help other people find their true selves as well.