What’s the worst that could happen? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to ask ourselves when we’re afraid to make the speech, accept the job offer, or make the dreaded cold call? Sometimes it helps and we realize the worst is that the other person will say no or we will stumble over a few words. But other times the worst case scenario is that we could die or be physically hurt. Actually, if we drill down, the real reason we avoid many things is fear of death or injury. I know this. I have a 17 year-old daughter who went on a March break road trip to Montreal with her friends. All my fears about her trip revolved around death or injury – long hours of driving on highways, driving in very busy cities, crime, making bad decisions. We live in a fairly small city and I worried how four teenage girls would fare in the big city of Montreal.
Every motherly fibre in my body said no – don’t go – not safe. Stay here where there are fewer unknowns and dangers. It’s the same instinct that still has me reaching for her hand when we cross the road even though she is nearly an adult who drives a car and is a certified lifeguard. It’s a hard one to let go of. My job is to keep her safe. I can’t do that if I am in Guelph and she is in Montreal with no adult supervision.
Her dad wasn’t particularly worried about the driving or the predators. He wanted her to be aware of all the potential issues and dangers, be prepared, and to go and have a good time. After hearing me out he simply said, “I want her to have an exciting life.” So do I! I want her to be safe and have an exciting life. That’s when I realized my fear of death and injury was really a fear of life.
I’ve been re-reading Pema Chodron’s Comfortable with Uncertainty – 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion. She explains that by “always trying to create safety zones” we are effectively “preferring death to life.” I get it. I could lock my daughter in a room to keep her safe. Good intentions, sure, but I would be denying her a full life.
The irony is that even if she stays home I can’t keep her safe. I have no control over anything really. We are all going to die. We know this. We don’t know when or how, but we know we all will eventually. Most of us do what we can to prolong that eventuality and many of these things are great – eating well, staying active, wearing a seat belt. However, hiding from life in order to be safe is not so great. I may think that I am keeping my daughter safe by keeping her close but I am really just keeping her from living.
As Pema Chodron says, “The essence of life is fleeting. Life might be over in the next instant! … It’s okay to let it scare you.” What’s not okay is to avoid life because I am afraid of death. Maybe it’s time to look more closely at what I’m not doing in order to keep myself safe. As Pema says, “We become habituated to reaching for something to ease the edginess of the moment. Thus we become less and less able to reside with even the most fleeting uneasiness or discomfort … This is our way of trying to make life predictable.” However, life is not predictable and no amount of saying no and living small will guarantee safety.
And my daughter … she and her friends not only survived their trip to Montreal, they had a great time and had an experience that contributed to the exciting life that we all want.