I could feel it rising in my chest. It makes your heart pound a little harder. It reminds you you’re alive, but also how fragile it all is.
I was in my regular Monday morning meeting surrounded by bosses and colleagues at the conference table.
Just breathe. In. Then out. Maybe they won’t notice.
It’s the feeling I’d never experienced prior to turning 30 before losing my job with a wife and baby at home. It’s the feeling I’d only ever heard about for 30 years and sort of rolled my eyes when I heard it mentioned.
I’ve never drank enough or smoked enough (and that’s saying something) to feel less in control than I do when this monster rears its head.
Just breathe. In. Then out.
People were telling jokes. I was supposed to be laughing. But nothing felt funny.
I wanted to leave.
Don’t lose it. Just breathe.
We’re Afraid Because We’re Weak
I’ve never been alone.
Because I was an only child, I’ve developed unique skills. I can hop an airplane to a strange city to attend events with no familiar faces and get along just fine. I can dine alone, sleep alone and figure out how to get where I need to be.
I’m good at meeting people, making friends and having a good time.
That’s the small stuff. I’m good at small stuff.
Despite being an only child, I always had a safety net. Until I was 18, I lived with my parents. Throughout college, I lived with my college roommate who is one of my childhood best friends. After that, I had my girlfriend who became my fiancée who became my wife.
We got a house. We got cars. We got a kid.
And then seemingly overnight: Poof. Gone.
The first thing I noticed was the silence. A lively home turned silent and cold. So I began to fear silence.
The second thing I noticed was how your insides get poisoned when the person you trust the most rejects you. If SHE won’t have me, who will? If I can’t keep the mother of my son, how will I find someone to want this dumpee with a kid? So I began to fear rejection.
The third thing I noticed was the loss of security.
There are four pillars of humanity. Mental. Physical. Spiritual. Emotional. And you need to keep all four balanced like legs on a table, otherwise you start to wobble.
You lose balance.
Because I read and write and think more than I ever have, my mind is sharper than it has ever been. I’ve always been good at honing in on one thing and excelling at it.
But I’ve taken hits elsewhere.
My motivation for physical health lied in wanting my wife to want me. Oops.
My motivation for spiritual health was rooted in my desire to be a positive influence on her and my son.
My emotional health was predominantly okay so long as the people I loved were okay. Emotional health seems to be a byproduct of getting the other three pillars balanced.
I’ve always had a net to catch me when I fell, allowing me to live courageously. To face challenges bravely.
And now the net is gone.
And now I’m afraid.
So I’ve begun to fear the fear as well.
We’re Ashamed Because We’re Afraid
Women tend to be afraid of abandonment because of how their hearts work.
Men tend to be afraid of abandonment because of how our minds work.
I am afraid.
And I am ashamed because of my failings AND because I’m afraid.
I’m not sure there are two emotions more caustic to humanity than fear and shame.
I’m afraid of failing my son.
I’m afraid of failing my parents.
I’m afraid of failing my friends.
I’m afraid of failing my co-workers.
I’m afraid of failing my God.
I’m afraid of failing myself.
In one way or another, I am failing all.
And I am ashamed.
I feel ill-equipped to keep my life afloat as it is currently structured.
Frozen in place on the tightrope, out of balance and terrified of the impact should I fall.
It’s all so fragile, this life.
I looked around the conference room table.
At the other end of the table was a co-worker whose marriage will legally end tomorrow.
Next to her, a guy who has been struck by lightning.
Then a guy with a second baby due in the next few weeks.
Then next to him, a guy who is going through something so horrific that I wouldn’t dream of trading my problems for his.
My heart rate steadied.
Remember to breathe.
My smile—weak, perhaps—returned.
One way or another, my ailments are unlikely to matter five years from now. And if they won’t matter then, they shouldn’t matter now.
Everything’s going to be okay.
The lady getting divorced tomorrow wheeled her office chair over to my desk, forcing me to minimize this post you’re reading.
“I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’m kind of having a day.”
“I can tell. It’s okay. I am too.”
“When does it go away? The anger?”
She was looking for answers I don’t have. A tangible timeline. Something to look forward to.
I looked at my desk calendar.
“It’s been 14 months and I’m not there yet.”
Other people are afraid, too. I’m not the only one. She wants my help.
And then you get a little stronger because it’s easier to be strong for others.
She doesn’t know yet that there’s no way to know where she’s going.
That the rough waters are vast and difficult to navigate for all of us sailing alone. That getting to calm waters and getting our bearings is the next step. That there’s nothing to do except keep sailing toward whatever destination will one day appear on the horizon.
Your only job is to stay alive.
Memorize the night sky so even if you don’t know where you are, you always know which direction you’re going.
And then when the storms find you, and the waves pick up, and you’re afraid you’re going to die, you can look at the sky, make a wish and just hold on.
This trusty ship has carried us this far. A seaworthy vessel. Tough enough for the voyage even when we’re thrashing about.
Overcoming fear is one of life’s most-gratifying feelings. You’d think that would make it easier to embrace the scary moments. It doesn’t.
When do we stop being angry?
When do we stop being afraid?
But probably someday.
Maybe we’ll find a shoreline tomorrow. Maybe we won’t.
But the waters will calm soon enough.
The stars will reemerge.
And we’ll be back on course for an uncharted destination promising adventure and endless possibility.
Today’s only mission: Stay alive.
Just breathe. In. Then out.