At my mom’s funeral Mass this past weekend, I was reminded by the readings, the music and the presiding Deacon (Norm) of an empirical fact that I had “stumbled” upon in the early days of writing my book: No admonition is more prominent or prevalent in the Bible than that we avoid fear and anxiety – and for good reason. Indeed, even those who are not faith-based or seldom read the Bible appreciate the fact that few, if any, emotions tax our finite energy reserves as completely or are quite as debilitating as fear and anxiety. And yet, despite those admonitions, fear and anxiety seem to be an increasingly inescapable part of our everyday personal and work lives. Why is that? Why do so many of us live in an almost constant state of fear? Why are there so many sources of anxiety in our lives? More importantly, how do we go about freeing ourselves from the grip of these ever-present adversaries, so that we can more fully enjoy our lives?
I wish I had the answers to all or some of these questions – I don’t! What I can offer, however, are a few observations drawn for my own life experiences that may or may not be helpful. First, I’ve found that, in my own life, fear and anxiety typically rear their ugly heads in advance of my having to “perform” on one of life’s many “stages.” Whether it was taking a test in the classroom as a child or standing in front of the class as a professor as an adult, being on the field as an athlete or in the dugout as a coach, appearing in court as an attorney or in a “mock” setting as a “judge” – whenever I’m putting myself out there and, in the process, subjecting “me” to the real or imagined scrutiny of others, I become very anxious and fearful. Why? Because I’m no different from anyone else. I want to be liked. I want to be accepted. I want to at least appear to be competent. I don’t want to make a mistake (God forbid!), let alone make a fool out of myself. In short, I don’t want others to discover what I already know to be true of myself (i.e., that I’m human) – at least not in public where word of my “humanness” could spread like wildfire! No wonder fear and anxiety start salivating when the need to “perform” is on the horizon. And yet, if I’m to be honest, I can’t think of a single instance where fear or anxiety actually enhanced my performances. To the contrary, more often than not, they adversely affected them and, in all instances, only served to add to already stressful circumstances.
I’ve also found that, at least for me, fear and anxiety are closely tied to “control.” By now, the “whole world” (well at least my world) knows that I’m a control freak. Consequently, when I feel like I’m in control (or at least capable of exerting control) over a situation, my fear and anxiety levels drop significantly. Conversely, however, my fear and anxiety levels tend to spike when I perceive that I’m in (or am on the verge of being confronted with) a situation that is outside of or beyond my control. It could be something as simple as handing over the keys to my car to someone else at the beginning of a long drive, boarding an airplane, writing a presentation for someone else to deliver, seeing my children perform or compete (or simply knowing they have a big test or evaluation that could have an impact on their immediate or long term future), or maybe even anticipating the imminent release of a new book to a universe of readers and critics (!!!). Objectively, of course, there are at least two false assumptions at work here that are important to recognize if we are to have any hope of limiting the power we allow fear and anxiety to wield in our daily lives (Note to self: Pay particular attention here): (1) more often than not we don’t have nearly as much control over “things” as we may think we do; and, more importantly (2) if I’m again to be honest in surveying this aspect of my own experiences, no amount of fear and/or anxiety is likely to have an impact on the outcome of the situation generating those emotions.
Can any of us realistically hope to completely eliminate fear and anxiety from our daily lives, as the Bible urges us to aspire to: highly doubtful. What is realistic, however, is that we can do a much better/more effective job of managing their impact on our lives. How do we do that? Well, in the case of “performance” based fear and anxiety, by: (1) making sure that we are as prepared for the task at hand as is reasonably possible under the circumstances; (2) embracing the fact that, in most instances, the people who have come to “see us perform” very much want us to do well; (3) recognizing and learning to be more comfortable with the fact that, as human beings, we (like everyone else in our “audience”) are imperfect and that mistakes are inevitable; and (4) giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to our own “awesomeness” and courage. As for the control freaks among us? I’m not gonna lie. You’re a little bit more of a problem. You’re just going to have to trust me on this, as one “recovering” control freak to another: You don’t have nearly the control you may think you do – and, believe me, that’s a good thing – you don’t really want it. Instead, your time and energies would be better (more constructively) devoted to “letting go” of the control you think you have and embracing the realization that the world is actually capable of functioning in a relatively orderly and surprisingly competent fashion without the “contributions” of your fear and anxiety.