"Courage isn't a natural attribute of human beings. I believe that we have to practice being courageous; using courage is like developing a muscle. The more often I do things that scare me or that make me uncomfortable, the more I realize that I can do a lot more than I originally thought I could."
-Theresa MacPhail, Medical Anthropologist, from her essay for the NPR series "This I Believe"-
I listened to Theresa MacPhail's essay on Monday & I just knew I had to post it in its entirety. As a 58 year-old, it's time to get serious about doing all those things that my fears, anxieties & worries keep me from doing. Time's a wasting!
There's no doubt about it---Everything wonderful & memorable in my life has come when I pushed beyond my fears, covered my eyes, held my nose & took a leap. Well, on second thought, maybe not everything. A lot of good things have come because I'm sensible, not a risk-taker, and cautious. It's all about balance. Courage coupled with common-sense.
I'm afraid I've inherited my mother's Worry Gene. And I'm definitely not a risk-taker.
I worry about:
- The economy nose-diving; the environment getting poisoned beyond repair.
- The health, happiness, safety, & financial security of my family & friends.
- Driving on freeways in the pouring rain, ice storms & blizzards.
- Sounding stupid. Not being liked. Being a pest or annoying.
- Getting Alzheimers, having a stroke, or getting into a car accident.
- Riding my bike in traffic.
- Being nice enough, generous enough, kind enough.
- Wasting my life.
I'm anxious about:
- Calling friends & relatives I haven't spoken to in a long time.
- Forgetting to pack something important when I travel.
- Navigating my car in large unfamiliar cities. Having the correct directions.
- Making decisions. Making mistakes. Being unprepared.
- Not getting everything done at home and at work.
- Going to a class, a lecture, event, or anywhere new, when I won't know anyone, and I'm not quite sure what to expect.
- Terrible pain. Vomiting. Stomach pain. Losing my hearing. Paralysis.
- Encountering someone who is violent, paranoid and mentally ill.
- Being all alone in a dangerous neighborhood.
- Something terrible will happen & my life will be instantly changed.
In spite of all my worries, I've had a chance to:
- Drive in a zero-visibility hail storm; hike from the Irish Sea to the North Sea without a tour guide & only a compass & cryptic directions; hike along a precarious cliff on the Isle of Skye in Scotland where I thought I'd surely meet my death; tutor in a dangerous inner-city neighborhood; visit someone in a locked down mental hospital; eat an unfamiliar, unrefrigerated lunch in a stranger's house in Beijing; work as a dental assistant without electricity or running water in tiny Honduran villages; have company over when my house was a wreck & I was totally unprepared; ride my bike on an impossibly hilly main street; go on a 7 day silent meditation retreat when I had no experience with meditation; write a blog; go Contra dancing at a town hall where I didn't know a soul.
Theresa MacPhail, the writer of "Courage Comes With Practice" says she's a nervous person, too. She rarely tells people about some of the things in this essay, and is a little afraid to speak of them--which is precisely why she wrote it.
After my brother died in an accident, my mother was inconsolable. I was only 4 years old at the time, but I still understood the seismic shift in my mom's attitude toward safety. Suddenly, everything around us was potentially dangerous. Overnight, the world had gone from a playground to a hazardous zone.
I grew up with a lot of restrictions and rules that were meant to protect me. I couldn't walk home from school by myself, even though everyone I new already did. I couldn't attend pajama parties or go to summer camp, because what if something happened to me?
As I got older, the list of things to fear got longer. My entire life was divided into "things you should avoid" and "things you needed to do in order to have a good, long life." I know my mom was only trying to protect me. She worried about me because after my brother died, I was her only child — and what if something happened to me? What if?
I became a natural worrier. I worry about things like getting cancer, losing my wallet, car accidents, earthquakes, having a brain aneurysm, losing my job and my plane crashing — disasters big and small, real and imagined.
The funny part is you'd never know it by looking at my life, because I'm constantly forcing myself to do the things that frighten or worry me. In fact, I've developed a rule for myself: If it scares me, then I have to do it at least once. I've done lots of things that my mom would have worried about: I've ridden a motorcycle, I've traveled — a lot. In fact, I've lived in China. I've performed stand-up comedy, and I'm planning my second wedding. I still travel to China often, chasing bird flu as a medical anthropologist.
There's something else I don't usually talk about, but it's a cornerstone in my belief: When I was 14, my mother died suddenly in a car accident. That loss, on top of my brother's unnatural death, could have paralyzed me, but at my mom's funeral I remember making a choice. I could either live out the rest of my life trying to be "safe" or I could be brave enough to live out a fulfilling, exciting and, yes, sometimes dangerous life.
I worry that I may have betrayed my mother by writing about her in this light, but she has been a driving force in my life — and in the end I think she would have been proud of me. Courage isn't a natural attribute of human beings. I believe that we have to practice being courageous; using courage is like developing a muscle. The more often I do things that scare me or that make me uncomfortable, the more I realize that I can do a lot more than I originally thought I could do.
Even though I inherited my mother's cautious nature, I've also come to believe that fear can be a good thing, if we face it. Believing that has made my world a less scary place."
Independently produced for All Things Considered by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.
One final note: Theresa's father also died in an accidental death. But she keeps telling herself lightning won't strike 4 times in her life and SHE REFUSES TO LIVE IN FEAR.