When asked what “big magic” inspired her to write Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert replied that as a writer she most often met people who yearned to live creatively but could (or would) not. When she talked to these people, they always had sensible reasons why they couldn’t get to the canvas to paint or the keyboard to type. “I can’t write a book,” they’d justify, “I have to make money. I have to have a career.” Though such practicality seems logical, Gilbert found that underneath all the rationalizations was always and only fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of vulnerability. Fear of ridicule. Fear that they weren’t talented enough. Fear that what they longed to do had already been done and done better.
So if fear is the central reason why so many of us resign ourselves to a humdrum existence rather than possess the boldness and daring to pursue lives we’re excited about, one question naturally follows: how do we overcome our fear?
It is the foundational pillar of the self-help credo that to be happy/creative/successful, we have to triumph over our fears, quash and quell all our nagging anxieties and murmuring self-doubts. “Conquer your fear!” self helpers rally, “The only thing to fear is fear itself!”
But Miss Gilbert espouses a different philosophy with regards to fear. Rather than try to clobber or crush fear (which is impossible), we should embrace it as a welcome companion. “What,” you’re probably protesting, “embrace fear?!?” Though we often conceive of fear as a ruthless enemy bent on our annihilation, fear is actually our ally. “My relationship with fear,” Gilbert eloquently explains, “begins with a tremendous amount of respect and appreciation because fear is the reason I’m still alive today…it’s the reason we all are.”
Biologically speaking, humans are hardwired to feel fear because fear ensures the survival of the species. Fear was the gentle voice that cautioned us to beware the bush in the savanna because it might hide a sabertooth tiger. Fear was the heedful part of ourselves that looked carefully before stepping should the African brush conceal a snake. Fear protected us. Today the problem with fear is it cannot distinguish a genuine threat from perceived danger. Whenever we take a courageous leap past the perimeter of our comfort zones, our inner alarm bells go off as if we were facing a grizzly bear. But writing a novel, starting a business or calling a potential client is not the same as going head-to-head with a 12-ft North American beast. To live passionately, we must learn to make the distinction. Not only that, we must learn to treat fear not as an adversary but as a dear friend. When we’re about to take a terrifying leap into the unknown and fear whispers her cautious counsel into our ears, we can listen to her worries, express gratitude for her concerns but assure her we’ll survive this risk- in fact, we’ll be better for it. “What’s worse,” hysterical self-help guru Jen Sincero asks us to consider, “trying to write your book (or film your documentary or launch your blog) and having it be terrible or never going for it and living an unlived life of mediocrity, wimpiness, and shame?”
“Living an unlived life of mediocrity, wimpiness and shame,” most of us would say. The reality is fear is never going away- it’s ingrained into the very genetic makeup of the human brain. What separates those who lead gutsy lives from those who don’t isn’t an absence of fear- it’s a willingness to act in spite of it.