Onward, Odysseus, I am with you

My goal when the year began was to live this year with love. To live in love, to live with every action imbued with love, to draw my intentions all in line with love.

It’s an ambitious goal. It requires reflection, introspection, and mindfulness. How else will we uncover our deepest motivations? Our deepest passions? Our deepest...fears?

When I turned my compass toward love, I had no idea what sea I was sailing into.

I once thought fear was the sole human emotion–I even declared there is no antithesis to fear, that fear is the root of all human experiences–but I realized later I was mistaken. That I had been treating fear as a feeling, something passive, but I was wrong.

Fear is as active as love–and neither is an emotion so much as they are systems of actions. To fear is not simply to have the feeling of being afraid (intentionally worded, as verbose and clumsy as it may seem–reflect on it further, if you must): instead to fear is to withdraw, to ignore, to turn away, to procrastinate, to shut down, to blind ourselves, to stop listening, to stop speaking, to apologize when no apology is needed, to forget what love is.

Some of these things seem unconscious, and perhaps they are, but that’s because, living in a state of fear, we are trained to be innately unconscious: when was the last time you considered your breathing, before reading this sentence? It is, perhaps, the most necessary life-sustaining action that we’re capable of consciously recognizing, and yet most of us remain oblivious to our own breathing our entire lives. This is why it’s so important, and so common, to focus on our breath when we being being mindful.

But to notice our breath is to notice it is not constant–that it can stop. And that when it stops, it may never start again, that in a few breathless moments, we may cease to be.

I’m rather thankful I can’t feel my blood pulsing, my heart beating. Imagine the chaos inside our heads if we could, for even a second, stop our hearts just by thinking it.

So while all those actions that embody fear seem unconscious at first, they are that way precisely because we allow ourselves to be controlled by that fear. When we recognize those moments we shut down, withdraw, and turn away, we can distill our streams of consciousness into precise, measurable quanta that we can start to understand. Then we will learn to see our triggers and decide, intentionally, whether we go or whether we stay.

Likewise, love is no trifling thing. To love is to listen, to see, to touch–perhaps not always physically, but to recognize, to notice, to appreciate, to wonder, inspire, and feel awe, to be gracious, to be considerate–to consider openly and honestly and sincerely, to witness.

But love is so much more–love is engaging, stepping forward, opening ourselves, blossoming, learning how to grow, to keep growing, to relate and enlighten.

I started this year with a flawed understanding of love and fear. When I set out from January first, I thought if I let my hands fall first on those things I love, that if I allow myself to reach for all these things that give me happiness, I would be happy. But the truth is, sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking those things that give us happiness–those things that inspire brilliant moments of joy and elation–are those things that we love.

But we’re wrong.

There are things in this world that give us insurmountable pleasure. I love scrolling through Facebook, looking at pictures and news stories and other things I never quite completely pay attention to, and I like perusing the pages of Tickld and laughing at silly jokes and repetitious memes, and I like eating more than I should, especially desserts.

But these things? They don’t make me happy. They make me think I am happy–they make me mistake momentary distraction from fear for genuine happiness.

Because what are the things I really love? I love my husband-to-be, my family, and my friends; I love mathematics, I love learning mathematics; I love leadership and fitness and being outside and writing poetry and fiction and reading more books than I know what to do with. But here’s something I didn’t realize: the things we love are the same things we fear.

All those other things? We might like them, and to some degree even love them, but they do not help us face those things we fear–the true roadblocks on our path to love–for instead they distract us from our fear. By indulging them, we are turning away from love.

This is where the journey truly begins, for to love is to speak, to ask, to stare at our shame and make peace with it, to face our imperfections and see their beauty, to possess in its entirety our fear and to carry that fear not away from what we love, but into it.

I’ve been questioning a lot this year, questioning my choice to pursue math, questioning my belonging as a graduate student, questioning my achievement as a leader, questioning my values as an individual, questioning my worth as a living, breathing human being.

It’s easy to question ourselves when we don’t want to see the truth already inside us. When we wonder, we wander, and that adventure takes us to so many new places, helps us discover so many new things, but it cannot overcome our ingrained fears. They cannot be challenged by turning outward, but instead must be understood by turning inward.

I don’t believe it’s possible to be fearless. I don’t believe it’s possible to name my fears and then leave them be as easy as it is to unfollow someone on Twitter or defriend them on Facebook. Just as our passions help define who we are, so do our fears, for in some ways, our fears exist along the same axes as our many-dimensional loves: move in one direction, and that passion grows, but move in the other, and we are overwhelmed by fear.

So to eliminate our fears–to fill our lives with only those things that do not scare us, that do not challenge us, that do not make us vulnerable–that is not to become a whole person, but rather to sever our ties to the things we serve to love the most in our lives.

I am afraid of failure and inadequacy. I don’t know where this fear stems from, if it has to have a birthplace at all, but I’ve seen it manifest itself in my aversion to sitting down and committing my time to homework, my sly and witty jokes when I don’t understand a theorem but can interject just enough humor to carry along the conversation. If I never allow myself to feel this fear, I will never again taste my love for the wondrous language of mathematics: in aiming not to fail, I will fall and drift away and forget what I love.

It’s the same with anything. If I fear the loss of those whom I love, I will vow to be to them who I am now–for if I am loved now, if I do not change, I shall always be loved. But that neglects that fact that to live is to change, and that holding myself back, holding myself in will not help our love to grow, but only stifle it. To flourish we must be brave,  but to be brave is to be vulnerable, to expose our soft spots and allow others to place their hands on us, to feel for a moment that tenderness, that feeble strength, that surface of fear.

And when we flourish, love becomes us, and love imbues everyone, everything around us.

Written September 4, 2015.

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3 thoughts on “Onward, Odysseus, I am with you

  1. Beautiful! I liked the definitions of fear and love and yes, really, how you orient yourself can become a way of life, a system of action and reaction. I am learning for now to neutralize fear and anger. Love is creeping in…

    • Thank you. It really is a journey, long and rarely easy, but infinitely rewarding… A system of action and reaction… though perhaps, I think, taking a lesson from my mindfulness teachers, perhaps to fear is to react, but love is to respond…

      Subtle differences can change the world. The small things, together, are infinite.

  2. Pingback: Goodbye Goals | The Writingwolf: Words and Wonders

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