(June, 1970) This photo shows me at the summit of Mt. Vesuvius. The guide is demonstrating the steam against my leg. I wouldn’t be on Vesuvius if I hadn’t conquered my fear of riding the ski lift to the top. I had to ask myself, “How can I NOT ride in this chair lift? When will I ever again get the chance to be on Mt. Vesuvius?” I was shaking the whole way up, and jubilant the whole way down.
Looking back over my life, several of Eleanor Roosevelt‘s quotes have defined me. The one that applies most to my personal development is the following:
“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face… do the thing you think you cannot do.”
As a child and young adult I was somewhat withdrawn and shy around strangers. I didn’t do well when thrown into an unknown situation. I didn’t recognize my strengths and I had low self-esteem. Only when I really, really wanted something for myself did I achieve. Achievement required that I swallow my fear and put myself in a place where I might suffer failure.
I was a good student in junior high and high school because I was interested in history, writing and anything involving literature. Those were my strengths and I could count on them. My skills in these academic areas gave me the opportunity to go to an excellent selective small liberal arts college about an hour away from home.
Even though the school was small, the challenge of the social scene there, as well as being away from home took away all my confidence and focus. I spent two years in that school and then transferred to another school where the social pressure was less. However, it wasn’t until I heard graduation practice at the end of my junior year that I faced down my fears. I can still remember sitting in the library and saying to myself, “No matter what it takes, I am going to graduate from college!” I made up my mind, swallowed my fears and did it. (The fact that I struggled with severe depression during this time will be discussed below.) I applied myself, completed every class in my minor of English by carrying an accelerated load of classes, graduating in December, 1969.
This has continued to be a pattern throughout my life. When I lived abroad during my first marriage, I was often afraid. Sometimes I would say to my husband or a friend, “This really scares me,” and that individual person would help. Or, I would hear someone say, “It scares me to go off the base into town,” and I would think, “Wow, she is missing so many wonderful experiences.” Slowly, through the years, I found that grit and determination were a requirement for success. Facing down my fears…
Throughout my working years as a teacher, I had to swallow down my natural fears as a reserved, quiet person, in order to meet new students, parents and faculty members. Grit, determination, facing the necessity of the moment have all played a part in my growth as an individual.
That doesn’t mean life has been rosy. It hasn’t. Sadness and grief come and go. I have lost people in my life and gained others. All of us have to endure in order to survive.
The greatest failures in my life have led to the greatest successes. My first and second marriages failed. Each time I have had to pick up the pieces and rebuild my life. I remember a wonderful poem I read when my first marriage collapsed. The poet imagined building a wind chime out of mud–which definitely seemed to be where I was. My second marriage was making lemonade out of lemons. Rebuilding my life, patching the wounds–they were all important to me. Living alone while my daughters were in college was a wonderful life passage–missing them, being on my own, discovering that I could enjoy my own company…and then finally meeting my soul mate, were all acts of courage as I swallowed down my fears. I knew I deserved more and was determined to get it.
The last big achievement in my life so far has been the ability to stand up for myself in the face of jealousy or disapproval. When I remarried for the the third time, I overheard people commenting on my remarriage–some people saying I was brave, others saying “how could she?” I had to learn to accept that I was going to do what I knew was best for me, no matter what anyone else thought. I learned to depend on my own judgment. Other women would ask me why I didn’t find someone younger, or richer. I had learned, thought, that I had to trust myself and live by my own rules. I knew what was right for me by confronting my mistakes, correcting them and knowing what was right for me.
Late in my teaching career, a rather naive teacher made a rude comment about people taking antidepressants (which have been a saving grace for me). In the past I would have just been quietly angry, but this time I turned to her and said, “I have taken Prozac since it first came on the market and it has changed my life. It has saved so many people who are depressed. You have NO idea what a difference antidepressants make.” (You go girl, I thought to myself.)
On that same faculty, I finally learned how to face down “the mean girls”–you know, those women who never do grow up!? They just go on spinning their webs. When someone was mean to me, usually through sarcasm, or treacly sweetness, or a wink and a nod, I threw kindness in her face. I discovered I was never going to win them over, but I wasn’t going to allow them to make me feel bad about myself.
Other recent accomplishments that came about because I faced down my fears and doubts have been finishing a memoir about my parents (300 pages), winning two poetry contests, teaching myself to knit, teaching myself to felt, and now I am ready to begin some other new project–and I’m ONLY 64! Woo hoo!