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Adventuresome cowardice

What comes next?

I’m a worrywart down underneath. Fear rules my life. While I have undertaken some bold adventures in life, I can’t help but think what I might have done had I not been such a scaredy-cat. Or, sometimes, I wonder what would have happened had I not acted on the fears that motivated me.

It may sound confusing, but to live in fear doesn’t always mean to cower in the face of challenges and backing down. There have been times, such as when I decided to walk to Montana and canoe back on the Missouri River, when fear of not doing something overcame the fear of undertaking it.

For many years, life had a sense of urgency about it. Ever since I was a child, I thought of death and what it meant to be dead. I think I went to my first visitation when I was hardly more than a toddler. Such events happened regularly—elderly aunts and uncles, my parents’ friends’ friends, and on down the line.

Since all these visitations were Catholic, they were all open casket, save for the occasional horribly disfiguring car accident. Contemplating a dead body, no matter how well dressed and made up, made me think about such everlasting questions as the meaning of life, the finality of death, and what, if anything, remained for us when we expired.

It upset me so, not because the dead themselves were scary but because I pictured myself dead. Looking down on those corpses, inevitably, I imagined what it was like to be conscious of nothingness. The heaven and hell of my religion didn’t really register with me. My thoughts centered on the finality of death and how different that was from being alive.

When I was young, this anxiety made me a very old man and I stayed that way clear into my 40s. Deaths of friends and acquaintances through my teens and twenties didn’t help me out of my conundrum. Combined with this helplessness in the face of death, I always had a sense of being abandoned. The further exploration of this deserves a whole other essay. But for the moment, let me just say that I equated abandonment with death, a pair of profound phenomena which most of us wrestle with when we contemplate our own demises.

Haunted early on in life by this feeling of mortality, nearly everything I tried had a sense of urgency. If I put my mind to something, I had to master it, learn the most of it so that I might become competent at the task or the field of knowledge or craft. This doesn’t mean that I ever became good at, say, the restoration of antique furniture. But I could do it well enough to get by. The same with bicycle repair, pinhole photography, mastery of German, study in American history, and welding and heavy construction.

Alongside the tension between being alive and imagining death, the notion that I may not ever be able to do something I wanted to do hounded me. This manifested itself in a feeling of, “If I don’t do it now, it’ll slip from me and I will have missed out.” Even now, that frightens me more than anything.

It isn’t true, of course, that if I don’t do something now I will never do it. But that didn’t matter when I conceived of reducing my worldly possessions to what fit into a backpack and taking off to live in Germany. While many wouldn’t have tried such a thing without knowing the language, for some reason, that didn’t occur to me—so urgent was it for me to act on the impulse. The same thing happened when I sat down one afternoon during a thunderstorm and decided to walk to Montana and canoe back to Kansas City on the Missouri River. And so on.

So, I have that feeling even now. I started working for the Post Office a little over two years ago. I needed the job and, bereft of a career, took what came up when it came up to keep the lights on. I suppose that if I had stuck with a task long enough, I might have had a career to fall back on. But looking for a job at the age or 57-58 and not having long experience in a particular field (except teaching, and there’s another whole can of worms), I floated through a sea of possibilities without being able to touch the water.

I am stuck at the Post Office, should nothing else come up, for the next seven or eight years. I like it well enough, I suppose. The job varies from day to day, which makes it interesting enough though I walk the same 14 miles and visit the same 434 mailboxes and 17 businesses every day. I can stick with it as, indeed, I must. Delivering the mail gives me a pleasant feeling of doing good, which, I suppose, allows me a satisfaction that many people don’t get at their jobs.

But the feeling of missed opportunities plagues me. My friend Eddy Harris just finished a writing residence with the Saudi Arabia Culture of Ministry. The pictures he sent from the Kingdom made me envious and gave me a sense of despair. They reminded me of all the times I had been fearful enough to jump from the rock face for fear of missing my chance to fly. They also reminded me of how many times I held back, didn’t go all the way, and always constructed a safe means of escape for myself.

What would life have been for me had I acted out of bravery and courage rather than fear and anxiety? I didn’t continue in journalism after conditions at my newspaper became untenable because I was fearful of failing out in the world of national journalism. I didn’t stay in Germany when I lived there, in part, because I feared that I would fail at what I wanted to do at the time—become a winemaker. I haven’t taken trips because I feared I might wind up failing and finding myself alone in the landscape with nothing and no one to turn to—abandoned, dead in the sense that I couldn’t imagine the nothingness that comes from being alone and without options.

Sure, I have done what many people consider to be wonderful things. But they seem to think that I am a brave person, that I wander through life with a sense of abandon and wonderment. In fact, I’m a coward. That’s not all bad. I might never have left or done or accomplished or attempted had I not been scared out of my wits.

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