Making the best out of fear

Don't be afraid to be a little afraid

My sister and I had a childhood library collection to which my dad provided three books: a book on conmen, a book on the mafia and a book on death cults.

My mom got a call from our small Christian elementary school when I was eight because my sister and I were telling the other students about Charles Manson, even tracing out little upside-down crosses on their foreheads with our fingers like the ones Manson’s cult members wore. My Dad swore that he had told us a “kid-friendly” account of the 1960s death cult, but like a non-nefarious 3 A.M. “‘u up?’ text,” I don’t think such a thing can ever truly exist. Likewise, my older sister’s ninth birthday party was disbanded when she paused “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” and passed around pictures of people murdered by mobsters. My sister Rosie giggled as the other girls piled into their moms’ idling Toyota Sienna minivans in tears, genuinely amused that, at nine years old, the other kids couldn’t handle black-and-white photographs of a bloody Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel after a successful hit.

My dad John--or as I like to call him, “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza, Papa John’s”--has historically refused to apologize for his stories, whether it be to friends’ parents or the PTA board.

“Hey, I’m just trying to educate the youth about the seedy underbelly of life before they can find it out for themselves under some highway overpass,” he likes to say. “It’s better that they learn about this stuff now than they get mixed up with some sleazy older guy who wants them to think he’s some Messiah from Myrtle Beach.” This last advice actually becomes surprising applicable for anyone who has ever enjoyed college beach week in South Carolina.

I can safely say that for the majority of my nearly 20 years on this earth, I have known more about the Heaven’s Gate cult than any of my peers. If you would like to challenge that claim, feel free to meet me in the TGI Friday’s parking lot tonight for a time-honored duel. Yeah. That’s what I thought, boy. You won’t.

I don’t think my dad was wrong for supplying my sister and me with our fair-share of suspicion as kids just as I don’t resent his ever-wary comments now. For instance, whenever I tell him about some new guy I find attractive, he remarks, “well, ya’ know a lot of women found Ted Bundy attractive too.” A fair point. It’s good to keep an eye out for potential risk and a healthy amount of fear gives you something to tackle in the future.

And that’s what I did. As I grew up, I made it my mission to fight those early fears of cyanide-laced Kool-aid, charismatic serial killers, and smooth-talking scammers. In high school, I’d go for daily--in retrospect, ill-advised--runs in secluded areas at night or in the obscenely early hours of the morning to prove to myself that no boogie man in the night could spook me.

My efforts have been largely successful, and as I’ve gotten older and moved on to the University, those original fears have remained, but lessened. They’ve been replaced, however, with a peskier set of fears: namely, the fear of bringing up the seedy underbelly of any situation the way my Dad loves to. Particularly recently, as a wee first year at the University, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that so much of my life that I believed to be lovely and pristine is littered with the same sleaze and unpleasantness that seems to plague every other relationship and situation. That’s hard to admit. The feeling of disillusionment is similar to what one experiences when seeing their elementary school teacher buying boxed wine in bulk at Costco. Scary, I know.

We spend far too much time anxiously watching ourselves flirt, flounder, and fall in everyday interactions. We’re all watching our lives unfold in some horror movie marathon on TV, perched on the edges of our seats, seeing ourselves naively venturing into the dark, backrooms of experience, yelling, “don’t go in there!”

It’s a lot easier to silently sweat some literal monster under the bed than it is to talk about metaphorical monsters in polite conversation. At some point, you stop worrying about infamous criminals and dark alleyways and focus your anxieties on covering up your own fears, minimizing the potential of ever encountering something truly terrifying like rejection or vulnerability or honesty by plastering on a smile and feigning fearlessness.

But, avoiding these fears--these fears of honesty and openness--only yields cowardice. The obvious fact here is, to ever overcome your fears, you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to accept that you have them. How can you ever get over a fright if you don’t acknowledge the so-called “seedy underbelly of life?”

For this summer and the year to come, don’t be afraid to be a little afraid. Go ahead and get your hands dirty with honesty. Have yourself a good ole’ fashion fright. Add a little adrenaline to your afternoon. It’s not all con-men and mobsters and death cults out there, but there’s enough fear to go around. So, go on and grab some. See what you can make of it.

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