by Amy Dennis
Fearlessness is a slick shyster. We tend to think of fearless acts as those steps of faith that balance on the tightrope between dreams and disaster. Not always. Fear rides around in our back pockets every day, just waiting for the chance to hold us back from our own growth. The good news? Fear’s alter ego, fearlessness, hitches a ride, too. It’s in the other pocket: the odd, brittle good luck charm from your childhood that you can’t quite bring yourself to ditch.
Women especially tend to hold fear close, like a trusted companion. Sometimes that’s healthy. Fear can, after all, prevent us from engaging in dangerous behaviors. Fear settles into our guts and raises goosebumps along our unsuspecting arms, pulling us away from dark corners of decisions that don’t even need to be made. So powerful are those instincts that they often override the stubbornness and social dissatisfaction that can lead to powerful life changes. What does that look like?
Maybe it’s the simple but shocking decision to venture out alone to a movie, bar, or concert. Maybe it’s the long-term commitment to move across town, across the state, or across the globe because that’s where the dream job waits. Fearlessness may look like nothing at all while a certain shift takes place on the inside; you may need to learn the hard lesson of how to value your own worth even when others close to you will not or cannot. Fearlessness can wait quietly, dormant until a woman’s golden years when she finally decides to travel abroad, her body almost too worn down to enjoy the adventure (but not quite so). Fearlessness may say, “Now’s the time to buy the house. Your house. Don’t wait any longer.”
Female fearlessness tends to be constructive, not destructive.
It runs deep in the reaching roots of a buckled-down woman: an inherited yearning for freedom. My mother and grandmothers were all grown in the same type of soil. My own genesis was fortunate enough to fall under the nurture of my mother’s light. Dad contributed too, in fact urging me to push beyond my comfort zone. I wasn’t ready for it when he told me to go to Colombia University, or when he quietly tucked a letter into my purse during the most difficult week of my contentious divorce. A treasure that is framed and displayed in my office, his typewritten words remind me that fear of change is normal.
Now, it’s my turn to be fearless, even if it scares the hell out of me. I become intentional now, wondering what I am showing and teaching my own skinny boys as they grow, bloom, and thrive. What do I want them to know about fear? How can I teach them, and does it translate across the gender barrier? More than anything, I want them to know how to:
- Learn without embarrassment: I know little about cars other than the fact that I love them. I know how to drive my 1972 Ford Galaxie, and I know how to fill it up with gas. That’s about it, though. When it needs some TLC, I drag my boys to the mechanic with me. They see first hand honesty, humility, and openness as I explain to the mechanic what I’ve noticed, inevitably mimicking a vintage car noise that hasn’t been heard by another human in the last thirty years.
- Thrive in individuality: The black and white plaid pants were on the clearance rack because they looked like something only a crazy person would wear. But they called to me, I bought them, and I wore them, only to be confronted by my ten-year-old later that afternoon. “Please tell me you didn’t wear those to work, Mom.” Yes, yes I did. And they’ve become my favorite pants. I get compliments on them every single time I wear them somewhere new. Whether those compliments are sincere or not, I have learned not to care.
- Expand friendship circles: Before my awakening, I had a couple of friends leftover from childhood, a few church acquaintances, and a mom-friend or two: all relationships of convenience or familiarity. These are beautiful, caring, hard-working women… with whom I had little in common. Then, finally, I outgrew the fear of my own self. I met one of my dearest friends while standing outside a bus in Albuquerque. I befriended the barista at the coffee house down the street by striking up a conversation about his t-shirt. Now he regularly sneaks bacon onto my veggie sandwich. I outgrew the racial tension that surrounded me since birth as a given and found, to my delight, that skin tone means nothing between two or more human beings who are passionate about the same subject, be it parenting or poverty, fitness or fast food. I wonder about the friendships I passed up before I became fearless.
- Try: So many failures. Failed relationships and business ventures; poor financial and personal decisions; choices I had to go back and re-make again and again. The more I’ve failed, the less it hurts. The more I’ve failed, the more delicious success has become. And the results of some of those failures have brought spectacular rewards, the most vocal of which are my two noisy children. Without the sense to try (and the misfortune to fail), I’d enjoy an easier, quieter, but vastly sadder life.
- Work hard: Fear says you’re not smart enough. You’re not strong enough. You’re not an original, and you don’t have the goods to make it. You have nothing to contribute. Fearlessness counters: sometimes effort is more valuable than talent. Hard work can trump I.Q. any day and often does. Sometimes, after a long time, fearlessness pulls back the curtain on other people’s bullshit to reveal the janky machinations of carefully balanced chaos. The recipe for success isn’t a lengthy list of exotic ingredients. It’s more a slow-simmered brew of time, grit, and life experience.
Fearlessness tricks us by using its inside voice in a noisy, whirling world. Courage isn’t always loud. Bravery doesn’t always beat down the door and brush aside the debris that blocks our path toward progress. Female fearlessness may often rise to the surface in still moments: those quiet seconds when we eyeball the tightrope and envision our first, tentative, silent steps.
One day soon, Amy Dennis will finish her Masters degree at Texas Christian University. Her research interests include survival literature, American roots music, and the relationship between oral culture and print based learning. She teaches Developmental English at Eastfield College in Mesquite, TX, and she’s the faculty liaison for the Writing Center there. Amy is also the curator of Eastfield’s faculty and staff literary blog, thirtyseventhirtyseven.com, the mother of two fine young men, and the Bananagrams champion of her household. She’s trying to be a better listener.