People often think that ‘fearlessness’ means not being afraid of anything, but I don’t think that’s true. If it was just a quality you were either born with or not, there wouldn’t be anything very empowering about it. I think the whole wonder of it is that you can live fearlessly in spite of fear; as John Wayne put it, ‘Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.’
Similarly, I don’t think people are born with either cynical or trusting natures. You might be more disposed to one or the other mindset, and life and circumstance might have taught you to be more one than the other, but while we are all very keen to label ourselves and others as either a cynic or a Pollyanna, a pessimist or an optimist, I think we have to be careful not to be limited by these labels. If we believe that these things are attributes, fixed, inflexible traits that are inherent to who we are, we can feel either trapped in cycles of negativity, or floored by the experience of pain and depression when it hits us unexpectedly.
I have always considered myself a ‘glasses half full’ kind of person, and have often been gently (and sometimes not so gently) mocked by people who consider themselves to be more of the ‘worldly-wise’ mould for being what they think of as naive. (I prefer the phrase, from I Capture the Castle, ‘consciously naive’, myself, for reasons that will become clear later.) Recently, though, I’ve been challenged by the experiences of dad’s cancer and the hormonal ups and downs of sleep deprivation and having a new baby to rethink what all those inspirational quotes I usually love so much mean when they say things like ‘Choose Joy!’. To someone in the depths of a dark situation, no matter how naturally optimistic they may consider themselves, hearing snappy mantras telling you that you can just change your mood if only you want it enough, grates like hell.
In A Grief Obsevered, C. S. Lewis writes: ‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says… Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.’
C. S. Lewis was writing about grief after the death of a loved one, and yet reading those words a few weeks ago when we had just had the news that dad was in the final stages of cancer, I had the uncanny feeling he was reading my mind. I realised I had started mourning pre-emptively before it was time. It made me so sad to think that I might waste these precious days, weeks, months, trapped inside my own grief, unable to reach out and make the most of the time we had left together.
I realised, then, that while you can’t choose to feel joy, you can choose to act as if you choose joy. To quote Lewis again, because he just gets it: ‘Do not waste time bothering whether you love your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.’
The same applies with choosing to act in joy. Joy is not about feeling happy, per se. This revelation was completely ‘game changing’ for me; it means that no one, however evil, and no circumstances, however bad, can ever take away my joy, my power and ability to impact things for the better. It means men and women can withstand even the worst of times, through suffering and even extreme vulnerability – the kind of vulnerabilities of illness and old age that our culture conditions us to be squeamish about, to wish we could shut away and not face. That’s an instinct we all have to fight, because, as this beautiful video (shared with me by a kind stranger on Twitter) says, ‘While we live, let us live.’
Having said all of that, I feel it’s important to point out that choosing to act like an optimist doesn’t mean being stupid or unrealistic. For goodness’ sake, don’t get in the van with the strange man just because, as a general rule, you trust in the goodness of humanity.* Keep your bag firmly shut and safe, especially when you’re in a busy city. Don’t walk home late at night through a dodgy area alone. Learn self defense, and be sensible. It is clear that like the powers of the superheroes and villains of the comic book universe my family love so much, something like Twitter, for example, can be used for great good or great evil.
The point is this: you might not always be able to control how you feel, and sometimes life will be hard, very hard, and you’ll feel blue. But all too often, we think that what we feel is the final word on things, that feelings dictate our actions whether we like it or not. I don’t buy that.
No matter how you feel, you always have the choice to act fearlessly – that is, as if you had joy – and that, my friends, can be our secret weapon in hard times. Grief drains you of energy, takes away your ability to do even the smallest and simplest of tasks. Joy is the opposite. Joy gives life and energy, and can result in great things that we might have thought were limited to our imagination and day-dreams. Live fearlessly, and don’t let the cynics shame you into inaction. What’s the worst that can happen? You might look a little silly. I feel pretty confident in saying, now, that it’s a risk I’m willing to take.
*A slightly tangential point, but related: there’s a common misunderstanding that people who believe in general in the goodness in people are stupid, and likely to be robbed blind or taken advantage of. I’ve found that actually the contrary can be true – if you expect the best in people, whilst also being sensible and aware of the bad that certainly does exist, you will often draw out the good in people. It’s like Steinbeck wrote: ‘In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love.’