A few Sundays ago, on a grey morning in upstate New York, I jumped into the cool water of Lake Otsego right behind my house. “Jumped,” actually, is a strong word for what I did. I waded up to my hips. Then I waited for courage to take hold. And then I almost turned back, twice – halfway in’s good enough, I said to myself. I don’t need to put my entire body under this unpleasantly cold water. I’m refreshed from the hips down, good enough. And then, in a moment unexpected, without thinking (and thoroughly surprising myself), I dunked. And I swam as far out as I could convince myself to – long before the place where the water suddenly gets deep enough that I can’t feel the bottom (which freaks me out and induced panic attacks in my younger self).
I’ve always been afraid of deep water, and its coldness didn’t make immersing myself in the lake any easier. But I was doing this thing where I was forcing myself to be a little scared and uncomfortable and to dive into my fear rather than back away from it. And that – directly facing fear - is possibly the most cathartic activity that exists – cathartic and, I think, transformational.
I started chasing this particular fear – the cold/deep water one - this summer. A memory pulled me into it. It is a quiet memory, one also involving cold water, and which still has a feeling of pure happiness attached to it:
I was camping at Lake Waldo in Oregon with one of my best friends, Lizzie, and her family for a few days. Lizzie has always inspired bravery in me, because I admire it so much in her. She loves being active, pushing herself. She is always off to a yoga class or running, dancing, doing handstands. And she is one of the most joyful people I know. We were co-counselors at my old summer camp for an entire summer and I know that I’m a better person for it. On this particular camping trip, her active, joyful bravery had her jumping into Lake Waldo fairly often, and had me sitting by the wayside, too self-conscious of my scaredy-cat self to attempt to nonchalantly immerse myself in the clear water. So I didn’t. Until one morning, when I went over to the shore by myself, stripped down, and just – at my own pace – jumped in. It was blissful – the feeling of confronting my own fear, followed by the unbeatable, enlivening feeling that comes with diving into cold, cold water. And not getting bitten or eaten by a weird lake-dwelling monster-y creature.
So, that’s what I did this summer. Again and again and again (literally, because I think I only did it four times). It brought back that same feeling each time: the feeling of getting closer to something, of opening myself to vulnerability, of chasing the boundary beyond which, I believe, our souls can grow a little.
On one of my very first days at journalism school, this was my assignment: go to a neighborhood of your choosing, find 5-7 strangers, and ask them this question: What keeps you up at night?
As those of you who know me might imagine, I was not jumping for joy about this. In fact, I was ridden with anxiety. Anxiety so bad that I had trouble sleeping. HOW could I just GO UP to random people and ask them a question like that? I believed that a. I would get to the neighborhood of my choosing and be unable to go up to anyone, having lost all ability to speak, and would come back to my class with no interviews to show or b. everyone I did go up to would refuse to talk to me, with the same result.
However, as soon as I mastered my approach (a combination of mild flirting, please-help-me-I’m-a-student eyes, and a gentle “can I ask you a question?”), I had a rush of the cold-water feeling again. It was like okayyyyy I can kind of do this. And I can kind of do this well. And I just overcame a humongous fear. Woo. Adrenaline rush. Adrenaline crash. Coffee. And I slept like a baby that night. I don’t know if I’ll ever completely get over my fear of interviewing random strangers, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I like it. But just having to prove to myself that I could do it – that was a blissful confrontation.
I think, at this age – our crazy, uncertain twenties – we are all forced to come face-to-face with such blissful confrontations quite often: Choices that challenge us, roads that seem impossibly scary to even begin to drive down, bosses who make us want to kill ourselves (or them), jobs that make us question what we are even doing there in the first place. But I think we can choose to see these struggles as opportunities to grow. Uncertainty and difficult questions are what are supposed to make up this portion of our lives. We have to figure out - before we raise children and all of that good, terrifying stuff - how to be happy, ourselves. If that were just handed to us, it would be boring. Really, think – what would happiness be if we didn’t have to earn it?
So, my advice from my own limited fear-chasing experience (and this is like extreme sports of the heart and soul, so shark-cage or sky diving doesn’t really count unless it hits you on a personal level): lean into fear, into questions. Strive for vulnerability.
I think the answers lie just beyond that ungraceful dunk into the scary lake waters.