Human life is an inscrutably odd mix of various, often contrasting elements. One such inscrutably odd element is fear. Fear is special even among the others of its kind — it contrasts itself in extremely peculiar ways. What I mean is chiefly this: we fear the possibility that we will fail miserably and embarrassingly at something very important to us. That cripples us all too often and prevents us from doing anything at all in the end. We also fear the possibility that we will succeed at something very important to us; and that so well that we couldn’t even ever have imagined it. That cripples us all too often and prevents us from doing anything at all in the end! Fear is its own paradox.
Most of us are familiar with that timeless quote that goes something to the effect of, “our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are actually powerful beyond measure…” etc. It’s a beautiful formulation of the human struggle against fear by Marianne Williamson. All of us have felt that niggling, pricking sense of acute apprehension that, if we go through with this move or that one, we may actually succeed and have people knowing our names and be sought after and depended on and all of that. And all of us have felt, far more often than we would have liked, that debilitating terror that saps the very vitality from our limbs and makes us go numb all throughout our bodies and minds at the mere thought of having to face some dreaded reality. Here we have the two sides of fear. It is true that we fear the light. It is also true that we fear the darkness.
But, you know, that gets me thinking: doesn’t it then become apparent that human beings weren’t designed to be merely ordinary or median? After all, it’s not success that we fear — nah, we can handle that just fine, thank you. It’s unprecedented, overwhelming success that’s our problem. And it’s not failure that we shy away from — it’s glaring, epic failure. Particularly in the things that matter most to us. We fear either extreme of the continuum, and so most of us live our lives decidedly in the middle in most of the things we attempt. Hmmm… Food for thought…
Let’s focus on the light side for a bit. We all say things like, “If I’d known this is how big it would have turned out, I would’ve done this from the get-go!” Well, I beg to differ. I believe if people could see the scale of their success from even before they started down their path, more than half the world’s great achievements would never have come into being. Maybe that number would even have been reduced to zero. Back in high school I used to hear people make the joke that Bill Gates made $6,000,000 in his sleep every night. It probably wasn’t just a joke. But if a young Bill Gates had been shown a fleeting vision of all that he would have become (and in particular that one day he would have been making 6 mil in his sleep every night), he likely would have snorted, shrugged, shook his head at himself and dismissed the whole thing as a crazy daydream of his (cue: Just My Imagination, Boyz II Men version) and then we would never have had Microsoft and all that came with it and has come from it since then. I believe that is true because I’ve had my fair share of what I’ve termed “crazy daydreams”, and I know everyone else has, too.
It’s not just about the level of success, either. It’s about the level of challenge and pain that we’d need to push through to get there. Oh, and the level of opposition too! That alone would be enough to finish Bill Gates and the rest of us off. Isn’t that part and parcel of why we deem certain things “crazy ideas”? Isn’t that why we decide some things are just “too hard” or “too much work”?
I think what makes certain levels of human achievement even possible is the natural, gradual progression. It’s literally all about the process. Maybe a 10-year-old Gates would never have been able to take his own success seriously, as I described above. Because at that point there was nothing but the vision. It would seem ridiculous, unreasonable; it was too far away. But give that same Bill Gates another decade of constant work and experience and suddenly the same ridiculous vision transforms into a crazy idea that just might work! Countless smaller, “insignificant” victories have set the stage for the audaciously spectacular! Suddenly 1 Corinthians 1:27-28 starts to make sense in a whole new way! It’s amazing how tiny victories and amounts of experience change the human perspective on what is possible and what isn’t. It’s amazing how they redefine and restructure the domain of fear itself. It’s like they actually rewire the brain. We start to believe when we make certain small steps. And it actually helps that, the whole time, we can barely see farther ahead than just beyond our noses!
But that’s also one reason why I believe true success simply comes — it’s not something that yields merely to being pursued. Sure, you can pursue it and then achieve it. People do that all the time. But just as many people do precisely that, working very assiduously, and still fail even then. The greatest success is the one unlooked for. It’s the success that comes from doing what you’re passionate about without regard for what you can get out of it. It’s the success that follows you instead of the other way around. It’s a date with Destiny. I’m talking about the kind of success that gave rise to women earning the right to vote and own property, emancipation of not only the Africans and their descendants in Europe’s slave trade but of numerous similar groups since, the invention of the airplane and the reality of wireless communication across countries thousands of miles apart via something as simple as WhatsApp. All of these came from people who simply did what they were passionate about without regard for profit, and destiny met them and blew their dreams up bigger than they could have dared to hope.
They couldn’t see past their noses, but that actually helped. Because every little step toward the goal gave them just enough courage to handle the fear that they could see immediately around them. Those same steps could never have sufficed to handle the fear even 5 steps ahead! That’s ultimately why humans can only live in the now. Try as we might, we can’t have our futures now, we can only have our nows now. And that is as it should be. We couldn’t handle anything surplus.
And that brings me back to my earlier thought: we weren’t meant to be merely ordinary. That’s why fear operates the way it does — it’s actually a challenge to push past it and get beyond the median! But how do we do that? In a word, diligence. We’ve seen it too many times to count, right? People who keep at what they’re doing, one tiny step after the other, no matter how slow the going is, are the people who really live in this world, rich or poor. Those are the only people who ever find the “secret” to besting the fear paradox. They’ve learned the secret isn’t really a secret at all! And, really, the only way to be diligent is to focus on the now and not so much on the future. There needs to be a delicate balance here. Have your future always in mind. Always have a clear vision of where you want to be. But the future is the future! Now is where you are and what you have. You have to live now if you ever want to create that future. You have to keep pressing now. It’s one thing to have a future goal in mind but it’s another to have the wisdom and discipline to understand that that goal — that future — starts right now! Too often we comfort ourselves with thoughts of that future we aim for and then use that very thing as reason to procrastinate, folding our arms and doing nothing. We should look at the details around us and work at them. Seeing the “bigger picture” was never about ignoring the details for the big things. It’s always been about being able to see how those details come together to make that picture. So what small thing can I do now? What skill can I develop? What do I already have that I can now perfect? Like Moses, the question to each of us is, “What do you have in your hand?”
And as we keep focusing on what we can do now we’ll see one of the most incredible mysteries of life unfold right before our eyes. We’ll see our very understanding of ourselves and our potential change. It won’t happen drastically. It’ll all happen very gradually. Although, the realization itself may be very drastic indeed! I can’t forget the day I realized — very suddenly — that I wasn’t just some guy struggling to play the piano by ear or compose music anymore. Quite suddenly I became aware that my ears had developed to the point that I could pretty much figure out any song in a very short space of time, and that my brain now had constant elevator music playing inside it that I was simply itching to write down! I was even performing music and composing for others. And that erased all the fear that I had been feeling up to that point! Naturally, new and more potent fears attended this realization. But if it happened once it would happen again, right? All I have to do is keep working at it. The rest will fall right into place. The cycle will repeat itself. And it has, without fail.
The future usually invites us to entertain all kinds of fears. The unknown is, after all, the one thing we probably fear most. And that is why only those who have learnt the “secret” of trusting God will ever really have peace in this life. That’s the ultimate fear buster right there. If God holds the future and I’m His son, His friend, then what do I have to worry about? He is the one who coordinates it all. It’s so beautiful how He makes all the fine details come together. Even our flaws, our fears and our failures turn to gold in His hands. Remember, the people we admire most in this world are by no means perfect. Far from it. They’re all people just like us. If God could make something out of their mess, you can bet your last dollar He can do the same for you and me.