I used to hide on the floor of the car.
When I was seven, and our family crossed the vast Mississippi river on the big bridges around St. Louis, I’d become so terrified that I would huddle on the floor of the car until we had reached the other side. Long bridges over water terrify me. I had recurring nightmares about them as a child. I have no idea where this fear came from; it has been with me for as long as I can remember. I don’t have any other fears like it.
And I don’t need them; this one is stubborn enough.
A quarter of a century after I huddled on the floor of an old Buick over the wide Mississippi, I drove my young family from Illinois to Maryland, where my wife’s family lived at the time. My bridge fears were mostly forgotten. Suddenly, however, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was looming ahead of us, arching into the sky like an Evil Knievel stunt for the ordinary motorist, and I had my first panic attack. I drove us across the bridge that day, but it happened again on our way home. And then it happened again and again and again.
Every time we traveled to Maryland.
Several years after that first panic attack, I was telling my therapist about it, and his reaction was the grace I needed at the time, as a recovering perfectionist. “Kelly,” he said, “maybe you don’t need to be the best at everything. Why don’t you let your wife drive the bridge?” So, for the last few years, every time we cross the Bay Bridge, we pull over at the last gas station before the bridge, my wife and I switch seats, and my kids tease me as we cross the bay.
Which is fine—after all, at some point, every kid needs to learn their old man is human.
So, the plan had worked perfectly over the years.
Until last month.
Last month, I was scheduled to speak at, and participate in, a dads retreat. The retreat was hosted in the Florida Keys. Several bridges beyond Miami. And it was a dads retreat, so my wife was staying home. I’d have no one to switch seats with me at the last gas station before the bridge.
I’m sure I was the most terrified traveler at the Alamo rental counter.
Why do we face our fears? Why do we cross the chasms that terrify us and drive right through our anxiety? Because there is something calling to us from the other side of it.
Something more important than our sense of comfort. Something more valuable than our sense of security. Something more treasured than our tranquility. We move toward our fears and through our anxiety because the destination is worth the dread. After all, courage is not the absence of fear; courage is the absence of stagnation.
Courage isn’t going forward without trepidation; courage is going forward with determination, even when we are terrified.
Courage is picking up the phone and calling the therapist, because the destination called healing and wholeness is more important to you than all the hard hours it will take to travel there. Courage is giving birth to your first baby because the destination of motherhood is more important to you than the painful path by which you arrive. Courage is having the hard conversation with the one you love, because the destination we call companionship is more important to you than the rejection you risk along the way. Courage is showing your art to someone, because practicing your passion is the destination you desire, and vulnerability is the bridge by which you will get there.
My wife recently observed that something has changed in me over the last year. She said I seem freer, happier, bolder. She asked me if I had gotten over all of my fears and anxieties. I considered that for a moment, and then I told her that wasn’t it at all. Something else has happened:
I’ve made a habit of doing what scares me.
And, like any habit, it gets easier and easier to do, even though most of the time the fear is still along for the ride. You can make a habit of doing anything, even scary things. And the best reason for establishing such a habit is this:
Most of what we love to do—and want to be—exists on the other side of our fear, on the other side of the bridge.
So, last month, I got into my Alamo rental car, and I drove over those bridges. None of them were as terrifying as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. But even if they were twice as high and long, I would have driven them anyway. Because the destination was worth it. And because I’m trying to make a habit out of courage. I hope you will, too.
I hope you’ll get behind the wheel of your life
and start driving through what scares you,
because what you love and long for
lies just on the other side.
Connect with 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 his next book, True Companions, will be published in 2021.