When my neighbor was dying of cancer, she wrote in a blog about the fact that she had put so much on hold, like having fun and spending time with her young kids, because she was working long hours to build her career. She was one of those ambitious high-achievers who had a plan and checked everything off her list, thinking that if she worked hard enough that everything would fall into place. She thought she had all the time in the world to focus on her career. Many people can relate to that. It never occurred to her, however, that she would get aggressive breast cancer at age 37 and be dead three years later.
There were two things that struck me about that. One was how often smart, hard-working, talented people feel that they can control their life path, as if hard-work somehow keeps bad things from happening. I did everything right in my pregnancy with my son, for instance, not even taking a Tylenol when I had a headache, but he still was born with capillary malformation and required years and years of skin procedures with anesthesia. I eat and take good care of myself, and yet still managed to get an inflammatory eye condition six years ago that has baffled doctors and left me, on bad days, feeling hopeless that I’ll ever find a solution. I started to blame myself, thinking that maybe I wasn’t eating healthfully enough, until I heard about a friend’s relative who ran marathons and ate kale (which I don’t like) and died of a brain tumor before she was 40.
The other thing that struck me about my neighbor was how fearless she was once she knew she was dying. She wrote that she used to be scared about not doing well on an exam or in her work, but then would say, “What’s the worst that can happen?” But when the worst that can happen is that you will die a slow horrifying death in a year or two after many painful treatments? That’s terrifying at first, and then ultimately freeing. When I knew this neighbor, it was almost entirely after she had been diagnosed, and she was the most present, joyful mom, having friends over, playing in a teepee with the kids, doing arts and crafts, baking and going on trips. One of my favorite song lyrics is from Me and Bobby McGee: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” There’s a lot of freedom in no longer having the time to care what others think.
But what if you didn’t have to be dying to become fearless? I often tell my clients, who are worried about what people will think, that they just have to keep forging ahead, since you don’t want to look back on your life and wonder why you didn’t try that new career, or leave the bad marriage, or take that trip. I have clients who keep thinking that they aren’t talented enough or educated enough to get the career they want, when from my vantage point, they are all those things and more. And I’ve said before, there is no Permission Fairy that you have to wait for.
I used to have a real fear of failure, so I found myself playing small, until I realized that I needed to take risks. If I wasn’t doing things that scared me, then I needed to do more. I got my second CD out, I pulled my kids out of school for 6 months to travel the world, I got certified in coaching, and I started a coaching business separate from my vocal coaching/music business. I got clients from all over the world and coached people on their business and their relationships and their health and their creativity. I started performing. I started setting more boundaries, like the fact that I don’t want to have traditional Christmas for a number of years and would rather travel with my family instead. And you know what, the sky didn’t fall in. I reminded myself of the famous quote: “What you think about me is none of my business.” It was tempting to wait until my eye pain had healed or to wait until the kids were at better ages (whenever that is), but there will always be a reason not to do something. The fact is that none of us has the time to wait, even if we get to live healthfully into our late 90’s as both my grandmothers did.
Anne Lamott wrote in Operating Instructions about her first year of parenthood as a young mom, during which her closest friend was dying. At one point, Anne tried on a dress for her friend, but found herself asking if it made her hips look too big. Her friend said to her: “I really don’t think you have that kind of time.” It wasn’t that her dying friend didn’t have that time. It was that Anne didn’t either. None of us does.
One of the things that is good about living in such a terrifying America right now is that citizens are FINALLY waking up. We didn’t wake up after 20 innocent 1st graders were murdered, or after many other massacres, but somehow after the recent Florida shooting, we are waking up and we are mad. I received messages from both of my kids’ schools about their active shooter drills that they run regularly, and I’m grateful that I don’t have tiny children at this point who are living in this kind of fear. Once you get to a point where Congress is just out to make money and pay back their donors, where housing is so expensive and good jobs are so few that the homeless and drug-addicted are growing exponentially, and that children are getting massacred with machine guns, then it’s easier not to care what the neighbors think. We don’t have the time to waste. Now is the time.