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Fear of flying

February 21, 2002

 

I was talking way back when about how it often felt like life wasn't really happening all the time, like I spent a lot of time sort of waiting for a bus that never (or seldom) came. I realized that life doesn't always unfold the way you envision it, and that I had developed a tendency to negate the real events of my life by considering them "not the real thing", or not the Big Things I Had Planned, therefore trivial exercises -- not real life.

 

The result of such negation of life is a sensation of life passing by, never really developing. Like Real Life was still out there somewhere beyond the horizon. In the sadness of that realization, I found myself, ever the optimist, focusing on the actual events of my life and imbuing them with value as being not just trivial random events, but My Life, as it was in each moment regardless if that moment was what I had in mind or not for myself. That brought me much greater satisfaction with my life, but I realize now that was just making the best of a somewhat less-than-extraordinary existence. What it comes down to is this: Are you living life big, or small? Are you living life scary, or safe?

 

I know I talk about this sort of thing a lot, but I find it really fascinating, and so many people seem completely unconscious of it: that little voice in your head that is constantly worried what other people are thinking of you - are they judging me? do they like me? do I look like an idiot? - is the voice of fear, and it's so familiar a voice that we think it's real. That little voice says things that have stopped me from actually pursuing my own dreams, and I suspect that's the case for most people.

 

That's why people who live life big, really lunging for that brass ring, get books written about them: because they are extraordinary people, unstopped by fear of failure or looking bad. The rest of us, frozen into the safe little circles we make our lives into, are completely and utterly ordinary. We are waiting for our bus, dammit, and no sporty racecar is going to take us careening off into The Unknown!

 

Those extraordinary people, I must add, sometimes stretch so far that it kills them. Eva Hesse, whose large and inspiring body of art was mostly made in experimental new materials which proved toxic, died at 34 of a brain tumor; and Amelia Earhart, who insisted that women were capable of the same acts of courage as men and was willing to live dangerously to prove it, disappeared in her propeller plane attempting to be the first woman to fly around the world solo. And extraordinary people also have a way of getting assassinated, like John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and Gandhi. So there are sort of life-preserving instincts to living small. But it goes farther than that; far from flying a plane around the world or trying to bring an entire country freedom from oppression, a lot of us act as if we'd *actually die* if we were criticized, looked stupid, lost, or failed. So we just don't take that chance. That defensive living goes right into relationships, like I was talking about here with my own closest friends never knowing when I was feeling vulnerable or stupid or weak.

 

Okay, so let's talk about me, because if I weren't 100 percent guilty of everything I just mentioned, I wouldn't know so much about it. 

 

So, I wanted to be a big artist. People told me when I was growing up that I was "special" and that I could have anything I wanted. People were nice to me that way, so really there was nobody stopping me from achieving all of my dreams except myself.

 

First, I had to acknowledge that I wasn't really trying very heard. I didn't really go look at art very much. When I looked into why, I sensed that I was afraid of comparing myself to what I would see there.

 

Second, after I left the safe haven of art school and all my art contact therein, I only actually sent my slides for gallery consideration twice. The first time, I was accepted into the show, and during the opening I heard a number of people criticize, even ridicule my work. I was sort of a star in my class at Art Center -- there were certainly people who didn't like my work, but overwhelmingly the people who "mattered" loved it -- so I was quite unused to ridicule. The second time I took my slides for consideration, it had been so many years since I had even touched any art materials that it all just seemed so stale to me, even; unsurprisingly, I failed to win a spot in the show. I had stopped making art because my ideas changed, and outside the nurturing environment of art school, I had no support, no cheerleaders for a new direction. I thought I was a good artist, but I was just good at pleasing the most people. In my fear of taking up a new direction I just basically stopped doing it, and utilized a rationale which is so familiar to me that it has become a dirty habit: I told myself if didn't really matter anyway.

 

Then I got into graphic design for a living, and because it was what I chose to supplement my "art career" with, it felt like just a job. Like how an artist whores herself for sustenance. That was what I told myself, and in that attitude I created a noncommittal approach to my work, seeing it as temporary until art (or photography) paid off. I always felt afraid of new situations, new bosses, new offices, because I never knew how I looked there -- myself, my work, my abilities, especially compared to everyone else. Comparing yourself to other people is useless and destructive... but it's hard not to.

 

My attitude towards fear has somehow transformed over the last few months. First of all, I developed a respect for it, a willingness to acknowledge it and give myself, and others, a break. And then, even though I still feel it, I don't *believe in it* anymore. Little voices of insecurity pop up like always, and I either ignore them with proverbial fingers in my ears shouting "la-la-la-la-laaaa, I can't HEAR you," or I'll listen politely, smirk with amusement, and dismiss them, "uh-huh, thanks for sharing."

 

It's incredible how fears feel so real!! Like, my best friend is really going to think I'm a pathetic loser if she knew I had a broken heart. Or if I'm criticized as a designer, or photographer, or artist, it means I really am a complete sham and I've been found out for the imposter that I am. The amusing thing is that while I'm busy obsessing over whether they think I'm any good, generally speaking, they're just as worried about what I think of them. It's not that I'm particularly fearsome, it's just that most of us really do worry what other people think of us most of the time.

 

Even the class clown, who appears not to care what anybody thinks, has simply created a persona of not caring what anyone thinks so that he's not in a position to be criticized for looking like an idiot. That right there is probably most peoples' biggest fear.

 

The result of this epiphany (it might not be to you, but it is for me) of this tiny life I had created for myself, is that it has been expanding... exponentially. I mentioned how some of my closest friendships have kind of blossomed in light of my willingness to get off it with my friends, but really this has become a pattern with almost every relationship in my life. I also have a new commitment to being a great designer and a great photographer, and especially in the realm of my design career I have seen astounding results.

 

But I'm not in it for the results, I'm really just doing everything I did before but without holding back anything. I'm not worrying about playing it safe.

I feel elated, like my life is skyrocketing into realms unknown -- and I sense that this is only the first of many realms even farther out of my old safety zone. I am fastening my seatbelt, but I'm tearing up the road. Screw the bus, anyway... that's no way to travel.

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