This post is by Dan Cumberland, our April Pilgrim in Residence. Dan is writing about finding meaning in our journeys each Thursday in April. Read Dan’s other posts at A Sacred Journey here. Also, if you’ve enjoyed these posts from Dan and want to work with him further, consider signing up for Meaning Sessions at The Meaning Movement. They’re a great way to learn more about yourself and your vocation in the world, not to mention start naming and facing your fears. -Lacy
Your fear is predictable: it always leads you down the path of least resistance. No matter what you face, know that your fear is taking you to a safe place. The problem with safe places is that nothing ever happens if you stay in them.
Your fear is a guide to the places of meaning and transformation (see week 1). The way she guides is by pointing at something and then telling you to go the other way. She will speak up when you get close to something that matters, and then tell you to take the path of least resistance.
The path of least resistance is the path of least impact and transformation.
Sometimes you need that path. Sometimes you need to play it safe. But most of us—unless you’re out of touch with your heart (which means you wouldn’t be reading this)—could use a little more courage and a little more adventure. We could use a few more pilgrimages that take us far from home and thrust us into places of vulnerability and unknown—the places that we fear the most.
Becoming brave is not about becoming fearless. Seeing someone do a brave act is like watching a gymnast perform on the still rings. (If you need a reminder of what it’s like to watch that, click around in this video for a moment.) A good gymnast makes the rings look effortless. He lifts, swings, bends, and holds his body with grace and apparent ease. As a spectator, I could say that a good gymnast performs effortlessly. He does not. Even at a world class level, with the strength that only elite athletes have, no gymnast would ever say that his routine is easy or painless. The point is that it hard. If it wasn’t hard, he wouldn’t be pushing himself far enough.
Similarly, a fearless person only appears fearless to the spectator. Her internal experience is quite fearful. It’s not whether or not you experience fear that makes you fearless, it’s what you choose to do with it. Fearlessness is the state of facing your fears.
The story of a pilgrim becoming brave is the story of a pilgrim choosing to know his fears. Author and serial entrepreneur Seth Godin writes, “The essence of leadership is being aware of your fear… No, it won’t go away, but awareness is the key to making progress.” (Tribes, p. 44) You are bigger than your fears. You can withstand more fear than you may think you have capacity to withstand.
Here are some practical steps to help you move from a place of fear to courage:
Stay in spite of your fears.
The first step is to stay in spite of your fears. If you let your fear make the decision for you, you will be running away as soon as possible and never have the chance to explore what’s ahead and the growth and transformation that you are being called into. It may take everything you have, but stay. Don’t run. Even if only for a moment. Know that your fear will not overwhelm you.
Identify your fears.
Fear can be an overwhelming and broad experience, but it is usually connected to specific things. Try to identify exactly what it is that you’re afraid of. Rather than being afraid of taking a risk, identify the outcome that you are afraid will result. For example, instead of saying, “I’m afraid of failing,” try to define that failure: “I’m afraid of being vulnerable and feeling like no one cares.” Once you know a specific point of fear, you have a greater ability to engage with it.
Explore the stories beneath your fears.
Your fear comes from your experience. Ask yourself when you’ve felt this specific kind of fear before. The more you can identify the crux of your fear, the more context you’ll have to explore when you’ve been in a similar experience. Tell those stories. Write them out. Sit down with a friend over coffee and ask for them to listen to your fear. The more you can understand what happened then and how you are shaped by it, the more power you will have in the face of your fears now.
Press into your fear with confidence and gratitude.
The final step is the easiest, if you’ve come this far. Gratefully move forward in spite of your fear.
You must fight for the work that really matters to you. Like the gymnast, if it’s not hard then you’re not pushing yourself far enough. Work worth doing is a struggle. Your calling, your passion, your purpose require you to face your fears.
The path of least resistance is easy to find—it’s the place we go when we feel overwhelmed. Your fear wants you to take that path. The real work of being a courageous pilgrim is staying the course.
Whoever you are, no matter how afraid you may feel: never give up.
What’s one step you can take today to face your fears on the path of fearlessness?