This meme about Georgia O’Keeffe has been making the rounds on social media over the last couple of days. Having recently learned that O’Keeffe suffered a nervous breakdown in her mid-40s and had to be hospitalized for two months makes it all the more poignant to me.
Like most people, I experience fear and anxiety on a daily basis. It’s become part of the background noise of who I am.
But I remember so very distinctly the first time it occurred to me that I could still do something even though I was afraid. That I didn’t have to avoid the thing that was causing me fear.
I was standing in the kitchenette of my efficiency apartment in Highland Park, NJ, at the end of my second year of grad school. I was in the middle of a divorce. I had no money, and no idea what to do with myself over the summer since I no longer had a home to go to. I couldn’t stay in the New Brunswick area. I knew I would die of loneliness and depression if I did that. I had an invitation to join two friends who were going to put on a show in Boston. It was no pay, no housing, no nothing. We would have to find an apartment to sublet and I would have to find a day job – all to be able to afford to do the show.
I stood there in my tiny kitchen, washing dishes, staring at the brown, particle-board doors of the cheap cabinets over the sink, thinking about how scared I was. The fear was an angry knot in my stomach. My world was falling apart and I was terrified to make it worse. I wanted to go to Boston, but I was so scared it was debilitating; I could not make a decision about it.
And then I had one of those moments, as if God himself tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention and whispered something into my ear. I realized that just because I was scared didn’t mean I couldn’t do it. I think I was waiting for the moment when the fear dissipated to make a decision about what to do next. But I finally realized that isn’t how life works. The life you build is in many cases built in spite of the fear you feel. You – I – feel fear and decide to plow forward anyway. I realized that I could be scared to go to Boston but go to Boston anyway.
I went to Boston.
Now, Boston was not a piece of cake. It was, in truth, a really stressful and sad summer. Well, everything about it except the play we did. The play was marvelous and funny and poignant and a little bit sad. I spent the summer working with some remarkable creative people. I played a character I would never otherwise play. That part was glorious. Working in the Accounts Payable division of the Cell Biology department at Harvard Medical School during the day while living in a basement apartment on The Fenway was fucking awful. Waking up to the sound of hooligans and ne’er-do-wells puking right outside my bedroom window was unpleasant. Having my car towed sucked, and getting flipped off every time I tried to drive was also not my cup of tea. Boston was not particularly warm or welcoming to me that summer. But it wasn’t Boston’s job to be. It was my job to acknowledge that I feel fear and to go ahead and do the thing anyway. For all the pain and trouble that summer, I’m still glad I went. Who knows what the alternative would have been, and I may not have made it through the summer had I chosen to do or go anywhere else.
What do you fear that you will do anyway?