As I stood washing my face yesterday evening in the harsh unflinching glare of my bathroom lights, I paused for a moment and stared at the person I had become. A reflection of myself equally unflinching was looking back at me, with a bemused look on his face, and asked, “When did you start becoming so afraid, and stop taking risks?” I gasped audibly, exhaled defeatingly, and was struck speechless. I mean, it is not often when your mirrored self asks you a question. So, it was of little surprise that I had no immediate response. However, after continuous condescending shakes of his head, and knowing smirks, I could stand him no more, and still being unable to answer his query, rapidly shed myself of my own bullying persona by quickly shutting off the lights, and headed toward my bedroom without looking back. I still heard him laughing and chuckling behind me as I walked down the hall into the safety and risk-free zone that had become my life.
“Damn that guy,” I seethed in anger as I lay down. My dog sensed my dismay and scampered hurriedly up onto my bed, scrambling and fighting through the myriad sheets, pillows, and comforters positioned haphazardly across her path, her only mission at the moment to reach the pinnacle of the headboard, where my head rested, to give me a generous dose of Milkbone breath between furtive kisses on my cheek with her tongue. She cocked her head to the side, as if to ask if everything was okay, and apparently satisfied with a job well done, plopped her head on my chest, and promptly went to sleep. I, unfortunately, did not.
When did I become so afraid? I couldn’t pinpoint an exact time or date, it was more a slow burn, as if my fearlessness were grains of sand in an hourglass, slowly sifting away, until it was all gone, replaced by absolute fear. Could I tip the hourglass over and become fearless again? Or was the weight of that glass too heavy for me now? Could I never be a risk taker again? Or did I just need a little push? Some help with the hourglass to start it anew? I wish I knew the answer. I’m still thinking about it.
As a kid, we barely know fear. We do whatever we want. We don’t think of the consequences, and maybe it is part innocence or ignorance or naiveté or just an unabashed sense of adventure and courage. We don’t view life the same way. We see it as a grand old game, new things to discover every day, treasures to unearth, riddles to solve, an obstacle course to pass. There is no I can’t do this. We can always think of a way. When does this leave us? When do we become so sensitive and scared? Why do I now worry so much about what someone else is going to think about me, when I never did before? What changes? I wish I knew so I can go back. I really do because there is one risk I feel I really need to take, the one keeping me up at nights talking to my reflection, and causing Mystique (my aforementioned dog) to keep cheering me up when I lay in bed.
I loved taking chances and risks. The payoffs to me were worth more than any setbacks. I jumped off the roof of my house into our pool. I bodysurfed down flooded drainage ditches after hurricanes, pretending I was on a white water rafting trip. I jumped off a horse from a circling carousel over the gate surrounding it because I wanted to see if I could make it (I didn’t. I broke my collarbone, and still have a little bit of a lump.) I climbed the highest trees, tried difficult tricks on my bike, went wandering into the woods, and stared down a coyote. I traveled spontaneously with no preplanned route, only my passport and a light backpack. I’ve snuck into sporting events, I was security at concerts (yeah, I know, I know, I’m a skinny guy, but I make up for it in guile.) I’ve run from wild boars, police, muggers, and rabid dogs. I’ve picked up hitchhikers, helped random strangers stranded on the side of the road, and went searching for a lost cell phone on the side of a dark car-infested street, unaware of the inherent dangers. I craved roller coasters, thrill rides, fast cars, trying everything once, and living life to the fullest. I incessantly told anyone and everyone who would listen about my love for Spider-man (that one really took guts.) I was a lifeguard, and even when someone almost drowned me while I was saving them, I was never afraid (I actually had to slap him 3 times until he settled down, but that’s another story, and this one is already long enough as it is, so let us press on.) I ran away from home, I pulled pranks, I dove into a McDonald’s ballroom, I got a job at Orange Julius just to see how many Julius’ I could drink while working (needless to say, but I will anyway, I got fired after my 2nd day of non-stop Julius binge drinking.) I’ve been mugged at gunpoint on a deserted beach in the middle of nowhere. I have extremely big ears (I tried flying like Dumbo once, but it didn’t work, I just fell on the ground.) I explored so-called haunted caves, houses, and graveyards. I believe I saw a ghost once. I grabbed a hot iron and pressed it to my skin when I was little because I didn’t know what it did and I wanted to find out. I was hospitalized and have gone through surgery. I have three tattoos, the first one of which took 8 consecutive hours to complete. I told every girl and woman who I liked exactly how I felt, and kept doing so even if at times that didn’t work out. I knew eventually I would find someone who felt the same. I kept belief in myself and in the “Life is Short” canon that is instilled in everyone ad nauseam, but that seldom few actually follow. These are all shallow and certainly not all-inclusive things that I have done to impart on you how carefree and fearless I was (and most certainly stupid at times) but there is a theme here, if you bear with me a little while longer. I just did what I thought or felt right and didn’t worry about the consequences.
Now, my fear has risen, like a slowly growing weed in your backyard sprouting in between two wood planks of your deck which you thought you got rid of the year before, but stubbornly keeps coming back once the weather gets warmer. And it keeps growing. You yank it, spray weed killer on it, douse it with gasoline, but it is always there….at times so small you barely notice, at times a big yellow growth of crabgrass on your otherwise pristine soul. Don’t get me wrong, I still do crazy things, and not worry about the outcome, but the one thing I am not doing is speaking from my heart. And really, isn’t that the only thing that matters? I am not afraid of anything, I always take dare, not truth. But when it comes to risking my heart and soul, I am petrified by fright. I worry over what will happen and wonder about the worst case scenario. This leads to conversations with my mirror self late nights in my bathroom. As always, my mirror self wins.
After last night’s “Why are you so afraid? Take a risk!” conversation with my alter-ego, I feel a little bit different. My body is tipping ever so slightly in another direction, I pray that hourglass is finally going to get the help it needs, reset itself, and I’ll start believing that the payoff of telling someone exactly how I feel far outweighs her never knowing. Maybe her hourglass needs a little push as well, and she is just as scared. I guess I’ll never know until I take that risk, and the little boy inside me who always did is just screaming to be let out, because he knows the payoff could be extraordinary and life changing, because his life was always extraordinary, and he wants to share that feeling with her. And isn’t that outcome, that payoff, that result, worth the risk? Having and sharing an extraordinary life with someone versus being alone and not knowing? My hourglass has finally turned over, and the first grains of fearlessness are slowly seeping away, I need to act quickly, before that little boy falls by the wayside once more.
So, my dreaded alter-ego, when you again appear to me tonight, through the foggy mirrored glass and hot steamy mist, and ask me the same questions you have been pestering me with for years, I finally won’t be tongue-tied and speechless or surprised. I have an answer ready for you, and I am not afraid to say it. Although I do hope, she is not afraid to hear it.