Project 25, No. 20: Fear
Have you ever had music that just hit you right in the place you tuck away and only bring out when no one’s looking? That’s what Lily Allen is like for me. She helps me come to terms for being an angry girl in an unfair world, filled with things to say and things to feel. Every insecurity, every fear is suddenly not a lonely, isolated feeling but something that’s OK, and set to some soft vocals, hard lyrics and pop beats.
Today, someone requested a post on fear.
I told my dad that would be the subject of my blog today (it’s his new favorite thing to ask me). “Oh, conquering fear - that’s a good one!” he approved.
But can fear really be conquered?
I don’t think so.
Fear is baked into us, and it manifests in some really funny ways.
Nervousness is one we see a lot:
Then there’s your good old fashioned, screaming kind. The kind that’s from things that go bump in the night:
But then comes the most insidious fear. The fear of failure, of judgement, of being “almost.” Of rejection, of becoming something undesirable, of all sorts of things that have loose shapes but definite consequences in the sticky parts of our imagination.
What are you afraid of?
What am I afraid of? Stagnation. Of slowly choking, of being stuck. Boredom. Of being passed over. And most of all, mediocrity.
I don’t care what sort of guru you are, or what sort of lifehacks you purport can solve this. Fear is real, and a little bit can go a long way. Doubt and fear can be powerful motivations to change. But it won’t ever go away. Just like how chlorine doesn’t kill all the bacteria and gunk in a pool - but most - so goes fear. There will always be a bit of it in you, but use it for good. Use it to build up your immune system, to encourage editing and resilience, but don’t let it cripple you. No matter what, you’ll mess up a little a lot. Sometimes you’ll mess up a lot, but let that just be a little part of your life. But most of all, please don’t succumb to the fear of missing out. You have but one life, so enjoy it one moment at a time.
Don’t let yourself get overtaken by the fear. Write something about it, as Steven Poole wrote about in The New Statesman. He examines the cult of spontaneity, which advocates a life free from commitment and encourages people to live in the moment. On its face, it’s a way to live life without fear.
The dream of spontaneity is one of escape, but the truth might be that the more time we spend in a self-built cage, the better we can escape. Other work in psychology reported at the premium end of the self-help spectrum seems to indicate, indeed, that pursuing spontaneity at all costs ensures we will be less happy… we are all subject to “decision fatigue”, the existential lethargy that sets in quickly when we are forced to make too many trivial choices. The antidote might be, then, to stick even more closely to a timetable.
Freed from the self-imposed pressure to do an awesome thing spontaneously, so this argument goes, we will actually experience more pleasure. “Stop worrying about living spontaneously,” Burkeman advises, “and you might start having more fun.”
But if more fun is our goal, the lure of spontaneity might creep back in. Is our overvaluation of spontaneity not, after all, born of a deep-seated fear – the fear of missing out? If we commit to one social plan for the whole evening, we might be missing out on something cooler happening just around the corner. So the mediated-spontaneity tools of the smartphone comfort us with the idea that it is always possible to bail out in favour of something better. And this is pleasant, too, for the hipster entrepreneurs who have just launched the nearby pop-up absinthe bar or dude-food smokehouse. As Jacob Burak reports in a recent essay, the fear of missing out “occurs mostly in people with unfulfilled psychological needs in realms such as love, respect, autonomy and security”. Too overwhelming a fear of missing out – a generalised attitude of always looking over the shoulder of the person you’re talking to in case there is someone more interesting or attractive at the party – can rob the victim of the ability to take pleasure in anything.
The lesson here is that fear is inevitable. Life is scary: you could be hit by a bus, lose your life savings, choose the “wrong” wife, even see your loved ones pass before you have the chance to say goodbye. Missing a fun party won’t end the world. So plan accordingly, and with balance - and let a little bit of that fear spur you to do so.
*Thank you for your continued support of my campaign! Please let me know if there are any requests for future content - you’ve got until Aug. 18 :)
Additional reading: for more on what it’s like to be anxious, read this.