Friday, April 27, 2007

MotherTalk: Fearless Friday

Today is MotherTalk's Fearless Friday, a blog bonanza in recognition of Arianna Huffington's book, Becoming Fearless. I've been thinking all week about fearlessness, trying to come up with a good story of when I stepped out of my comfort zone, took a risk, challenged my usual fears.

I'm a pretty timid person, it turns out.

That is, I'm physically pretty timid. I didn't learn to ride a bike 'til I was 12, never really got into sports, still feel awkward on a dance floor. I heard a colleague speak the other day about her love of extreme sports and I gaped open-mouthed at her as she spoke. Launch myself down a mountain with thin pieces of wood (fiberglass? plastic?) strapped to my feet? Jump off a mountain, or out of a plane? Forget it.

It's not really that I fear pain--though I do, I think, have a healthy instinct for self-preservation. It's more about looking foolish, about humiliation, about failure. One way or another I think the fear of failure has motivated me more often than I like to admit in my lifetime. One can achieve a certain measure of success by fearing failure--I do tend to do the things I do rather well. But the older I get the more I realize that without risk is no true success. I urge my students to try harder things; I ask for edgy thesis statements, even if they're wrong, rather than the safe ones they all (we all) aim for at first. I ask for experimentation rather than regurgitation, exploration rather than recapitulation. And I am trying, increasingly, to practice what I preach.

I think I talked about this earlier this year, when I got my green belt. But it really goes back much further. Being a parent, for me, is all about living with fear. There are the productive fears of birth defects and accidents that have us complying with our prenatal care routines and installing car seats. These don't, we know, guarantee "success," but they help us cope. Then there are the unproductive fears--of strangers, of random violence, of the unspeakable--that we simply can't allow to control us, though events occasionally bring them to the fore. We can, of course, convert those unproductive fears to something useful by taking on a cause, by urging change. I watch Elizabeth Edwards, who has faced one of my greatest fears--the loss of a child--and now can gracefully face her own mortality, seemingly fearlessly, at least in part because she has something to work for. And my own efforts at fearlessness seem timid and small in comparison, but they're what I've got.

Becoming a parent is teaching me fearlessness. I will fail, I do fail. We all do. But it's in our hard-earned failures, not our easy successes, that we grow.


Heather said...

Nice post, Libby.

And, btw, if we ever meet at a conference or something, I'm taking you dancing. Just you wait. In the meantime, get excited.

PunditMom said...

I hate that it's the hard-earned stuff that makes us stronger. It would be nice for things to be easy once in a while.