getting to know fear


“I do not think you can get rid of the fear… but you can dance with it.” — Seth Godin

I came across this quote in the excellent 99U newsletter and it had a resonance to my mantra of “Dance, Don’t Scramble.” I almost hesitate to use it because of a single article: the quote mentions “the fear”, not just fear in general. What fear was Seth talking about? I was about to Google the quote to put it in context…when something stopped me.

Make your own context, a little voice in my head said.

“But…” I sputtered at the voice. “Journalistic integrity! Attribution! Ethical blogging standards!”

Pifflesticks, the voice said mercilessly. You’re dodging the question you should be asking.

What fear would you be dancing with, Gray?

That’s an uncomfortable question to ask oneself. But I know how to answer it, of course. Everybody knows what their fears are because it takes a helluvalotta effort to keep from looking at face-on. It’s exhausting, in fact, and requires a huge amount of social media, self-sabotage, and streaming video to avoid the quiet places where you come face to face with the fear.

The Most Dangerous Dance Floor

I’ve taken a lot of dance classes. I can tell you what happens when you’re learning: you find a space that is open. That is clear of other obstructions, of things that might clutter or get in the way of the dance you’re trying to learn. You make sure your footing is secure.

If you use music, then it is music that supports the dance you’re doing. Argentine Tango, the SugarPlum Fairy, the Rite of Spring…these have specific moves. Many modern dance classes have no music at all, though, teaching you to listen to your own body’s rhythms, to let your limbs and momentum and breath and heartbeat set the music. In really advanced dance forms you learn to ignore the music completely – I remember the unforgettable sight of my teacher Jin-Wen Yu doing beautiful tai ji moves while Stayin’ Alive thumped through the dance studio.

It’s hard to get past distractions. That’s why studios exist: to get rid of the lights, the audience, the world around and give a space where you can pay attention to the dance you’re doing, and, where applicable, the one with whom you dance.

So what happens with that partner is your fear?

Moving Through

I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
– “The Litany Against Fear”, Frank Herbert

Like any partner, you don’t just run at your fear. You both enter that space which you have created to practice your dance. You evaluate – first with your eyes, looking at the fear, getting closer and closer until you touch, in whatever way the dance calls for.

Gray Miller Dancing
Dance taught me to overcome obstacles like gravity.

Sure, some dances call for Footloose-style leaps and grande jetes over the abyss. But you don’t start there. You try smaller steps, you learn how to place your foot when you land, you gradually feel your partner get more used to you.

Eventually, with enough practice, you become so accustomed to how it feels to be close to your partner that you don’t even need to see them. The “inner eye” – or, in more dancerly terms, your kinesthetic proximal awareness – gets to the point where you know where they’ll be before they’re there, and you know without the need for sight or sound.

It takes practice. A lot of practice, if you want to get beyond the “two people moving around” and into “dance“. It takes letting go of egos, of releasing your sense of identity in the service of something greater, some piece of ephemeral beauty made up of movement and time. It’s not a performance, there in the studio; it’s practice. You would not believe the moments of transient beauty created and released in those spaces. It isn’t a performance, it isn’t “for real”, until you take it out of the practice space and into the space where there is an audience. Where you are comfortable enough to dance with your partner right there in front of everyone.

Dancing Around the Subject

Some of the more astute here will have noticed the 500+ word digression that still hasn’t answered the original question: What fear would you be dancing with, Gray? I’m not avoiding it; no, instead I’ve been using the practice space of this blank page to dance with it. We’ve been circling around each other, the fear and I, and we’re about to finally meet and touch and dance a little duet:

I’m afraid of missing out.

There. That’s it. Just another bit of “FOMO” (fear of missing out, or the yuppy equivalent of “YOLO”). In particular there’s a convention in a few weeks that I’ve gone to for ten years in a row, and this is the first time I’ll miss it. It’s a conscious decision, and a good one, but it feels strange. It triggers deeper fears, the typical fears of a mid-40’s man unsure of his contribution to the world. Is it enough? Or, what if it’s not, and I don’t have enough time?

Perhaps it’s triggered by smoking the last cigar bequeathed to me by a dear friend who recently passed away.

My fear, it has many beautiful and interconnected layers. It moves in smooth, strange, and unexpected patterns. It’s a worthy dance partner, and I’m very privileged to have this quiet stormy Wisconsin morning to play with it. For us to get the measure of each other, as I relax into it and learn that I won’t actually fall, or to lift it and discover I am strong enough to support whatever it does there in the air.

Of course, dancing is a time-based art; you can’t practice all the time. But that’s ok, too. When I spend enough time in the practice space moving with my fear, when I know it well enough to dance with it, the result is pretty predictable and obvious: it’s no longer a fear. It’s just a thing, FOMO, whatever name I want to give it. I can choose to come back to that space and dance with it some more…or thank it for the time and choose another partner. Or walk out of the practice space entirely, and just get on with the rest of life.

But the practice: it’s important. Because if you’re not dancing, you’re likely scrambling. Not that scrambling is necessarily bad. It’s just exhausting.

Aren’t there better things to do with your energy?

Postscript: For a cool imagining of the Litany Against Fear,
I highly recommend Zen Pencils’ interpretation.
However, it does have images of domestic violence,
so warn your triggers.

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