Don't Let Fear Have the Last Laugh

I’m writing this at an altitude of thirty-thousand feet.

The plane is bouncing like Jell-O.

We’re flying toward a Chicago winter storm, and we’re flying away from our adventure in New York—away from our appearance on the TODAY Show. The turbulence is a fitting end to an anxiety-filled week in which nothing was familiar or comfortable or predictable. As the plane jiggles, I try to make my fear go away by running through my bag of psychological tricks:

Deep breathing. I take long, slow breaths and try to create feelings of relaxation. It doesn’t work.

Visual imagery. I visualize a smooth landing in Chicago and tell myself it’ll all be over soon. But the phrase “it will all be over soon” isn’t terribly comforting when your plane feels like a roller coaster.

Cognitive restructuring. I try to challenge my fearful thoughts by recalling reassuring statistics— didn’t I read somewhere you’re more likely to get killed by an alligator at the North Pole than get in a plane crash? But that isn’t very helpful, either. Because it reminds me that crazy things do happen, like alligator tragedies in the Arctic Circle.

With my eyes shut tightly, I’m making my fear worse by trying to control it.

When Fear Rides Along

I used to think the goal of therapy was to help people vanquish their fear. Now, I think a goal of therapy is to help people vanquish that idea.

Fear thrives—and lives shrink—in the midst of this fundamental misconception: as soon as I get over my fear, I’ll start to live and seize the day and lunge for my dreams and listen to my heart and embody the passion I know is alive within me. When we buy into this lie, we spend our lives trying to rid ourselves of fear. At best, we end up sitting in the waiting room of life, while all the while our name is being called. At worst, the effort to control the fear only makes it grow bigger and scarier.

If we want to really live, we’re going to feel fear. It will be with us in almost every good and beautiful moment of our lives, as we break new ground and head into new territory.

So, do we just grin and bear it?

Yes. But with a big, crazy emphasis on the grin.

When Fun Rides Along

As the plane to Chicago rattled and shook, I quit trying to banish my fear. Instead, I opened my eyes and I looked to my right, where my daughter was sitting.

She was looking back at me with a silly grin on her face. Then she inserted a finger in each corner of her mouth and tugged them in opposite directions, sticking her tongue out at the same time, making the “goofy face” she showed Willie Geist and Natalie Morales right before our segment on the TODAY Show. Then, as the airplane shook her from side to side, she let loose a belly laugh and started singing a song of her own imagining with nonsense lyrics.

My daughter was having fun. Right next to my fear. In the midst of my fear.

And as she did so, she reminded me how I got through the anxiety of an appearance on national television: I didn’t find peace by making my anxiety go away—I found peace when I realized I could be afraid and have fun, all at the same time.

To be honest, I wondered if taking my whole family to New York for the show would be a distraction. But they weren’t a distraction—they were my salvation. They showed me the opposite of fear isn’t fearlessness. In fact, they showed me fear doesn’t need an opposite, it just needs a companion: fun.

I brought the fear, and they brought the fun,

when we stepped off our accidental elevator ride with Mitt Romney and my oldest son fist-pumped his way down Central Park South like he’d just won an NBA trophy,

when my kids descended upon the green room continental breakfast at NBC Studios like a plague of locusts,

when they danced on the subway like it was their very own sound stage,

when they left me no choice but to embrace silliness and whimsy and adventure.

In the midst of my anxiety about national television, my kids showed me: There is another world existing right in the midst of our fear, a world in which fun is waiting to happen. And fun has no prerequisites: the fear doesn’t need to be controlled, managed, or eliminated first—in fact, those efforts leave us too preoccupied and too exhausted to have any fun at all.

Turbulence in Life

The dictionary defines turbulence as “disorder or commotion.” By that definition, life itself is turbulent, often disordered and full of mess. In the midst of life’s turbulence, we often find ourselves on the fearful side of the aisle, trying to control the anxiety. But if we stop long enough to pry our eyes open, we might just look across the aisle and discover that fun is riding along with us, too.

We don’t have to be fearless to enjoy it.

We just need to be unashamed. Willing to make a goofy face and sing songs that don’t mean anything and laugh like it’s our first time and our last time, all at once.

If we want to live fully, we need to stand tall in the aisle of life, shaken about by turbulence, holding the hand of fear on one side and the hand of fun and and whimsy on the other. At the same time.

If we can do so, smooth landings will stop mattering so much, because we’ll be too busy enjoying the wild, beautiful, turbulent, joyful, scary, delightful ride.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.