What Are You Afraid of?

Everyone is afraid of something. The human race has been able to survive based on a primal instinct to assess risk, not through careful and deliberative thinking but through the grasping gnawing emotions of fear. Everyone has felt that pulse-quickening, stomach-dropping feeling of panic. And no one likes it.

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about fear because I am remarkably lucky. I’m not afraid of spiders or snakes, heights or caves, flying or water. I’m pretty comfortable with going to new places, meeting new people and learning new things. I find the dark disorienting and I don’t enjoy being unable to communicate or move freely, but compared to most, I feel like my ambient level of fear is pretty low.

This week, I listened to a podcast about fear. And listening to other people talk about fear — what it is and how they have addressed it — got me thinking. What am I afraid of and how does it impact my life?

My most tangible moment of fear was when my son was quite young, maybe three years old. I was alone with him in the house and he was still sleeping. I sat down on the bed and in a moment of exhaustion closed my eyes. I woke up 30 minutes later immediately worried that I had given my toddler too long by himself. I jumped up to confirm that he was tucked in bed.

He wasn’t in his bed. He wasn’t playing in the playroom. He hadn’t turned on the tv or gotten on the computer. The panic rose and I started running through the house, first calling, then shouting, then screaming his name. Upstairs, downstairs, basement, garage, backyard. My voice started to break and I found myself in tears trying desperately to calm down enough to think of a plan. What do you do when your toddler wanders off? Who do you call? Would my husband ever forgive me for losing our son?

Then I heard a sleepy voice from upstairs. “Mom?”

I sprinted up the stairs two at a time, running into the computer room where he was laying on the futon. He looked surprised and still tired; he had clearly woken up at some point and fallen back asleep there. I grabbed him as hard as I had ever grabbed anyone, running my hands over him and smelling his hair. My brain understood that all was well, but the primal fear wanted confirmation that he was real, that he was whole.

Nothing in my life — before or after — has scared me as much as that moment.

But as I put the pattern together in my head I know I have felt that feeling other times. That horrible sickening feeling has almost always come when someone I care about has been put at risk by my action or inaction. It doesn’t matter if the risk is physical or emotional, professional or financial. It was just this week that I came to an understanding that my single biggest fear is that someone I love would be better off without me.

And that they might realize it.

Like any other phobia, I recognize the irrationality of my fear. In my intellectual core, I know that it is crazy. Most days I live miles away from that feeling, strong in my confidence that I am a good mom, a good wife, a good worker. That I am a good person. But it is always there, camping out in a corner of my brain waiting for a moment when it can remind me that it could happen.

And the hard thing is it does happen. Wrapped around every time when something doesn’t go to plan is the fear that rises up, invited and unwelcome. I imagine it is like the people who live contentedly with a fear of flying and then sit white-knuckled on a plane. I’m in the air now flying through turbulence. No biggie for me, but for those guys? It must stink. But, there must be some comfort in recognizing it for what it is and being able to deal with it then.

That’s why I enjoy podcasts. They give me new ways to think about the world, reframe my ideas and come out with new understanding. No, I don’t have a fear of tight spaces (claustrophobia) or a fear of spiders (arachnophobia) or a fear of the foreign (xenophobia) — I have a fear of failing the ones I love.

I wonder if there’s a word for that?

Laugh at Me

I love comedians. None personally, but from a distance I enjoy the way that they can make the banal absolutely hilarious. I try to be funny, but most times I try I end up saying, “That was meant to be a joke…” which takes away from the overall effect.

I am not funny.

That said, when I was younger I inspired a lot of laughter. Outspoken and awkward, I was pathologically unable to identify and respond to the social niceties of my peers. Great with adults and magical with little kids, I was a fish out of water with my contemporaries. As an adult now, I’m not surprised that kids laughed. I am sure that I said and did things that were absurd.

And for a period of time that response lead to me having an aversion to laughter. Or more accurately to people laughing at me. Or near me. Because when it was near me, I was sure it was at me. And that was the way that things were from the time I was old enough to be aware of ridicule until I got over it.

I wish I could remember the moment, or series of moments, that helped me come to terms with my quirky individualism. All I know is that at some point I realized two things: 1) laughter is good for the soul and 2) I was good at creating moments for laughter. And as I thought about it, I also realized that laughter is good for you whether the joke is intentional or unintentional, whether the person is good-spirited or bad, whether it is “at” you or “with” you. So, I decided that although I would never be a comedian I was going to lean into my unique ability to make people smile and laugh — just by being me.

Now, I am not condoning for one moment mean-spiritedness and I hope that I would be one of the first people to stand up for someone else who is the butt of someone’s joke. It’s just that at this point in my life I believe that the humor people find in the good-hearted, well-intentioned things that I do and say is therapeutic. It lightens hard conversations and builds trust.

Recently, I pulled a presentation together for my boss to give to a large group. In it, he wanted to share a concept and asked for a dictionary definition. The definition from Google was useless, but I gave it to him anyway and told him, “You can use this as a way to get a laugh from the audience and springboard into the more important conceptual ideas.” He liked the idea and I sent him off to present the next day.

Soon after, I got a call from someone in the audience. She wanted to let me know that my name had come up during the presentation when my boss had explained the definition. He said something like, “I asked Mel to get me a definition and this is what she gave me. Not so helpful.” My colleague was worried — she knew me, but what would other people think? Was I ok?

I smiled. I told her how the presentation had come together and that the definition was my idea, even if I hadn’t planned on being the punch line. But only one thing mattered to me at that moment. “Did the group laugh?” I asked. Yes, she said, it was the biggest laugh of the day, rippling through the group. I could feel my smile widening.

Hmmm, maybe I’m a comedian after all.

Examining Success

I am fairly confident that when humans started using language the words they created were fairly simple. You. Me. Eat. Rock. Run. I’m not a linguist by training, but I suspect that the words that emerged were from the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You know, the words focused on staying alive.

It wasn’t until the mid-1500’s that the English word “success” was coined from the Latin succedere (come close after), but wow did that word gain popularity quickly. Now, you can find it everywhere. Podcasts, self-help books, quotes. We want to find success. We want to define success. We want to argue about success. We seek success out like thirsty people divining for water. 

Me, too.

Driving home recently, though, I heard a great quote about success from Maya Angelou that refined my thinking.

Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.

I’ve always thought of success in big terms, big achievements. But the funny thing is that after hearing Angelou’s quote I realized that I feel success daily. Every day my heart is a barometer on my success. I run through the moments, meetings and milestones and weigh them out. Did I focus on the right stuff? Did I do it the right way? In short, did I like the Mel that showed up today? Did she make me proud?

I never thought that success could be viewed in small terms. I never considered that every single day can be not just a good day, but a successful day. I didn’t consider that the daily feeling in my heart — the buoyant feeling of being at my best or the anchor feeling of letting myself down — was measuring success. And that’s crazy, because I feel it so strongly. That feeling when I like me and what I’ve done and how I’ve done it and I am on top of the world.

And in that moment, success feels like as good a word as any.

The Sailing Family

It is amazing to me how quickly families build their traditions. Some families camp, some go to amusement parks, some ride bikes. There are collector families, sporty families and reading families. There are no end of activities that parents drag their children into until suddenly, just in a moment, you become that family. The one whose Facebook wall looks like it could be the poster family for the National Association of _________.

For 15 years, we’ve been The Sailing Family.

We bought our first sailboat, a 24′ Hunter, when my daughter was nine months old. Neither my husband nor I had ever owned a sailboat, but we both love the water and had been in it or around it our whole lives. He’d wooed me from the wheel of a 16′ metallic blue Checkmate with more horsepower than good sense would allow and I fell in love with him in spite of it. We’re both of us creatures of the Great Lakes.

That summer was a learning experience, for all of us. We learned rigging and points of sail. We learned that a pack and play fits perfectly wedged between two bench seats. We learned that it takes two people to come in and out of dock, but that once you’re under sail only one person is needed. We learned the weather we could handle and the weather we couldn’t. Our little one got her sea legs before she could walk steady by hanging onto the lifeline.

Over the years, weekends became a blur of weather checks and phone calls. On every beautiful day the calls would go out to friends and family to see if anyone wanted to join us. We packed away life jackets of every size, ready for the inevitable, “Can my friends all come?” We crafted a standard warning for the parents, ‘When you’re in a sailboat you can’t be on a clock. We’ll be back when we’re back.’

For 15 years I was the family photojournalist documenting the adventures of The Sailing Family. I’ve got pictures of kids (mine and others) at every stage, from handheld infant to teenager, in life jackets of every size and color. Ports we’ve sailed to, troubles we’ve survived. Sunsets and sunrises. Burgees, docks and buoys. A lot of pictures of our first boat and the ‘step-up’ one we bought five years ago when our family outgrew it.

And, my album is done because this week we put that second sailboat on the market.

When we listed it the first time, two years ago, I was raw and hurt. I wasn’t ready to do it; I wasn’t ready to say good-bye to being The Sailing Family. I had no idea what we were if we weren’t sailing people. I didn’t want to just be a ‘sit at home’ family or a ‘watch tv’ family. In my heart we were sailors — I was a sailor. I threw myself into the process to prove it, so that when we got an offer for our asking price we turned it down.

But last summer we started a new family tradition. We stuck with the water, but we went for speed and tested out a couple of wave runners. Going 40 miles an hour on a floating motorcycle is fun and (bonus!) I don’t look bad in a wetsuit. This spring we decided to step up to an open bow jet boat. The kids, who were bored senseless of going nowhere at four miles an hour, couldn’t be happier to be joining the ‘noisy boat’ set. We have visions of water skiing and tubing, and building a whole new set of memories.

So, this time I’m ok. It took me two years, but I’ve realized that we aren’t just The Sailing Family. No single activity or place or thing defines who we are and what holds us together. Sure, we’re still The Boating Family now, but who knows what we’ll be in another fifteen years?

Maybe by then we’ll be The Sailing Family again, with grandkids.