When we are taking risks and growing and being challenged and transformed, fear and loss are a guaranteed part of life. Not because we’re doing it wrong. But because we’re doing it right.
“Daddy, I have butterflies.”
My oldest son, standing in a parking lot as dawn happens all around us—birds busy with a new day and the sun beginning to peak above the treetops. My oldest son—two spindly legs topped with a man-sized duffle bag and a too-big baseball cap—standing in front of a line of buses that will transport him to his first-ever day of wilderness camp.
An eight-hour trip.
Twelve days gone.
No communication with us.
Butterflies? I’d have been a sloppy mess. In fact, on the inside, I was a sloppy mess.
Afraid For Our Lives
Butterflies. Nerves. Anxiety. Terror. Different degrees of the same basic experience—fear.
Fear can be a nauseous nagging in the gut. Or that oh-my-God-I-don’t-want-to-do-this-but-there’s-no-way-out-of-it-now feeling of dread. Or a panic so bright the mind turns white and the heart hammers right out of your shirt.
As a therapist, I have dedicated much of my life to eliminating it. Fear can become the plot of our lives—avoiding it, managing it, and, torturously, fearing it. Fear can paralyze a life and when it’s debilitating, we should respond with our full arsenal: herbal remedies like valerian root, cognitive-behavioral interventions with fancy names like “progressive relaxation training,” and ever-improving medications with better chemistry.
But in all the effort to eliminate fear, I can forget that sometimes fear should not be eliminated—sometimes it should be embraced. Because sometimes fear is what happens when we seize the day.
When Good Things Hurt
My oldest son. A line of buses. Eight hours. Twelve days. No communication.
My oldest son, less than ten years from the womb. I remember that first night—12:04am and he arrived all pink and screaming and the doctor handed me the scissors with the rounded tips and the cutting was tough.
But nothing like this.
Nothing like this severing, this sending.
Standing in front of the buses, my oldest son sees some friends and his butterflies appear to flutter away. A quick kiss and a hug and he disappears into one of the buses.
I’m left alone, with my butterflies.
At first, I try to gratitude away the anxiety and the itching around my eyes—I wonder at the beauty of a kid comfortable enough to leave, and I feel thankful for the resources to send him to camp. But the warm and fuzzy feeling won’t come, because the reality is he’s off to camp and it is a good thing but it also hurts.
Because leaping into good things almost always feels like a free fall.
And maybe this is what happens when we seize the day and step bravely into life: we have reason for gratitude and reason for fear, all at the same time.
Seizing the Day
Sometimes, feeling afraid causes us to stop living. But the opposite is equally true: fully living causes us to feel afraid. It takes us into new territory. It pushes us to our limits. It causes us to grow and to change and to leave old, beloved things behind. We end up in the middle of the best things in life, with butterflies and tears.
In recent years, psychology has embraced mindfulness interventions and their underlying assumption: fear and sadness are normal parts of the human experience. By trying to eliminate them altogether, we eliminate an important part of our humanity.
We must stop trying to eliminate our fragile humanity, and we must make it our companion.
We must sit in the car while our son sits on the bus and when all the sadness and fear hit us like a wave, we must stop fighting against the wave and we must learn to ride the wave. We must quit trying to progressively relax, and begin to progressively feel. We must welcome the sadness and the fear with open arms.
If we can learn to do so, we might just discover something surprising at the bottom of our fear and our sadness. We might discover life and love don’t always feel warm and fuzzy, even if we’re living it bravely. Especially if we’re living it bravely.
We might discover life and love are about holding without clutching, cherishing while releasing, feeling the joy in the midst of the sorrow. If we can stand in the middle of our butterflies and tears, we might be able to seize the day—and the people we love—while letting them go, all at the same time.
So, as I watch the bus pull out of the parking lot, I quit trying to fight the fear and the sadness, and I let them in. Because, in the end, there is simply no way to fully live and to daringly love without them.
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Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.