Would you jump out of an airplane? How about run with the bulls in Pamplona? What about swim with sharks in open water? Like most people, the thought of engaging in these activities scares the heck out of me. But I can’t help but wonder, does fear keep us from making the most of our time on this earth? Is our fear of death so acute that we would rather sit back and watch; be part of the audience rather than join the actors on stage?
A few things occurred this past week that got me thinking about this. One was taking my daughter to the New England Morgan Horse Show in Northampton, Massachusetts where she and her horse Matt competed with some of the best junior exhibitor hunt seat riders in the country. I watched in awe as these talented young participants rode high strung 1,000 plus pound horses with the elegance and grace of a classically trained ballerina. Perhaps some of their bravery can be explained by their sheer innocence. At some point in life we become acutely aware of the dangers involved in riding, and in living life in general. We stop doing what we love for fear of getting hurt – physically and emotionally. We tell ourselves that we’ll pick it up again – some day. But when that ‘some day’ is here we find that we are just as fearful as ever.
The second event that led to my philosophical exploration of fear was a visit to poet Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. I have always been fascinated by her life and work, so my daughter and I decided to take an afternoon off from the horse show and explore the house and gardens of this remarkable American poet. There are a number of misinterpretations of Emily Dickinson’s life, particularly surrounding her decision to live a life of seclusion in her later years. Many people are under the impression that it was fear and depression that led her to isolate herself from the rest of the world. Depression was very likely a part of her existence, and for understandable reasons. At an early age she became familiar with death and loss. In addition, while not regarded as a feminist per se, Dickinson was well aware of the limited options available to women in her day. She knew life was short, and thus decided to spend her life doing what she loved most: writing. By making this decision she was not exhibiting fear, but rather a fierce and brave determination to live life on her terms. As she advises us in one of her poems:
If your Nerve, deny you –
Go above your Nerve –
He can lean against the Grave,
If he fear to swerve –
I often times wonder if longer life spans have extinguished our zest for adventure and meaning. Think of Amelia Earhart, our nation’s founding fathers, and countless numbers of writers and artists who spent their early years taking chances and following their heart’s desire. So, stand tall in the face of fear. Step outside of your comfort zone and do that one thing you’ve always wanted to try. Take your horse to a show, or experience the exhilaration of cantering across an open field. It doesn’t have to change the world; it only has to make life more meaningful for you.