Someone recently asked me, “If you had it to do over, what would you do differently in high school?”
Although I would do a great deal differently, my first response was, “I’d run for student council.”
“Why didn’t you?” the person inquired.
“Fear,” was my simple response.
A few years ago I read a book on leadership authored by a former U.S. Navy SEAL. One of the chapters concerned the subject of “fear.” Navy SEALs are seen by the general population as fearless warriors, whose bravery knows no bounds. But the author took a different approach. Fear, he explained, is normal. Everyone experiences and faces fear. In fact, fear is the reason most of us do not do what we wish we could do.
He described two types of fear. The first is fear of failure. Almost all of us identify with this aspect of fear. In its extreme form, we are afraid to fail so we save face by not even trying.
I once knew a student who turned in a blank test without answering a single question. He was unprepared for the test so, rather than try and get a failing grade, he chose to do nothing and receive a zero, which hurt his final grade much worse than if he had tried and made, say, a 50.
The fear of not being elected kept me from even running for student council at all.
The second type of fear is the fear of what others might think about us. This, of course, is peer pressure at its worst. Studies have demonstrated that many people, who have the ability to leave poverty, do not do so because they are afraid of what their friends and family might think.
When I worked a construction job after my senior year of high school, some of the permanent workers started calling me “college boy.” It was meant as a slur. Why did I think I was too good to stay where I was in life? I didn’t think that, of course.
When I received my college degree, a family member said, “Now don’t go start thinking that you’re better than us.”
My own father, who pressed me to go to the university, said on graduation day, “Son, it takes more than a college degree to make a man.” It was another reason I didn’t run for student council. After all, what would people think about me if I did? Would they laugh at my attempts?
In fact, most normal fear falls into these two categories. Fear keeps us bound, restricted, and inert. The SEAL, on the other had said fear has no more power than a morning fog. We can see it. We may not be able to see what is on the other side. But fog has no power. It cannot hurt us.
His advice? To embrace the fog and walk right into it. Do not let the fog, or the fear, kept us from attempting to accomplish worthy goals.
A few years later, and after trying to follow this advice, I came upon a challenge. As a chaplain and reserve police officer, I was required to go to the firearms range once a year. I nearly always fired “master” with the pistol.
One day, after everyone had qualified, that range master said that everyone could, if they wish, try to qualify with the combat shotgun. I went rigid. I had never really fired a shotgun at targets. Here I was surrounded by police officers who were very competent.
I quietly told the range master I thought I would pass up the opportunity and just go home.
He looked at me a long moment and said, “The principles are the same. You can do this but it’s up to you.” He then walked away.
My fear of failure and the fear of what the cops would think — especially if I failed — nearly caused me to retreat. I decided to embrace the fear. At the end of the day I had totally surprised myself by firing with the qualification of “expert.”
I try not to let the fog win now. The worst that could happen is that I fail. So what? The other worst that could happen is that people might think less of me. So what?
But what if I succeed? What if I embrace the fear — what if I choose to walk into the fog? Well, then, the fear. Like the fog, has no power. I see it for what it is … just a mist without substance. So, my advice? I now agree with the SEAL: Choose to walk into the fog and embrace the fear. You just might be surprised.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Sharpsburg, GA (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese which consists of Georgia and Tennessee (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]