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embracing fear

December 22, 2013

Two days ago, I read Brene Brown’s interview with author Elizabeth Gilbert. The part that stayed with me:

“I believe that Creativity and Fear are basically conjoined twins; they share all the same major organs, and cannot be separated, one from the other, without killing them both. […] So here’s my magical thinking — I decide every day that I love Creativity enough to accept that Fear will always come with it. And I talk to Fear all the time, speaking to it with love and respect, saying to it: “I know that you are Fear, and that your job is to be afraid. And you do your job really well! I will never ask you to leave me alone or to be silent, because you have a right to speak your own voice, and I know that you will never leave me alone or be silent, anyhow.  But I need you to understand that I will always choose Creativity over you. You may join us on this journey — and I know that you will — but you will not stop me and Creativity from choosing the direction in which we will all walk together.”  And then…onward we march…”

I don’t agree with almost anything in that paragraph. If I’m a pedestrian in Rome, hoping to get across a street in one piece, Fear is smart and adaptive. If I’m getting chased by a bear, same thing. If I’m getting mugged, Fear also makes sense. (See Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear for more about these sorts of fear.)

But, more to the point, imagine Fear and Creativity are aspects, or personas, of Elizabeth Gilbert. Imagine being the one who is constantly being told “I’m ‘listening’ to you, but I just don’t like you. I’m always always going to pick the other one over you — it’s never going to be your turn! But don’t worry, I do ‘respect’ you!”

That’s not respect. That’s not listening. That’s emotional abuse.

When facing difficult and painful choices, Fear has often been my best ally. When I don’t know what to do, but I do know that something has to change, Fear helps me figure out what really matters to me.


A week ago, I received a holiday card from my brother’s household. The handwriting is my sister-in-law’s. And it’s addressed to a diminutive of my old name (along with Spouse’s name).

There it sits on my desk, staring balefully at me, oozing menace and contempt.

Friday night, I went for a late (“midnight”) ramble around my neighborhood, and found myself thinking about what to do with this holiday card. Instead of the usual hour’s walk, I kept walking for 2.5 hours, eventually staying up all night. It took me that long to figure out what really bothered me about that damn envelope.


My old first name was 3 syllables long. As I’ve written about, several times, I never liked it. When I was around 11, I picked the particular diminutive that the card is addressed to, and asked people I liked to call me that instead of my name. It’s two syllables long, and its 4 letters share only 2 letters with the spelling of my original first name.

But long before I was 11, people in my family of origin called me other, shorter, names as well. The 3 I heard most often were each 1 syllable: Mick, Muck, and Geen.

My favorite uncle called me Mick, even though I hated it, and asked him repeatedly to stop. He laughed, apparently finding it amusing to flout my preferences.

My favorite older boy cousin called me Muck; later, one of my (younger) brothers also called me that. They enjoyed playing up the “mud and slime” implications. I hated Muck much worse than Mick. (Even though I personally liked mud and slime. But clearly, the way the name was used, I was meant to feel low and disgusting.)

Geen was different. My mother told me it came about when I was too little to pronounce my own name, so I called myself Geen, and other family members picked it up from me. I’ve always been fond of Geen, so my mother’s story could be true. (That my mother might be correct about something so important, however, strains credulity. But it’s the only origin story I’ve ever heard, so I can’t rule it out.)


Listing all of these alternatives to my 3-syllable mouthful of a first name —a name that I always felt didn’t suit me, the individual person, at all — I have to wonder why my mother was so adamant that I always go by all 3 syllables, at least in official capacities (school, etc.). She always said it was because she had “carefully and lovingly picked out the most beautiful name, just for me”, so other people had to respect that, and by extension, me.

But when I write those words, I don’t see respect, I see contempt. For me.

My original first name — both in the spelling my mother came up with, and in my own later more-creative spelling — was uncommon 47 years ago, and not much more common since. I’ve only ever met a handful of people with it, and they rarely spelled it the same way. So when people hear it, I have always had to spell it out.

For a name I don’t even like, this was a particular kind of torture.

Very often, the person I was spelling it to would exclaim about what a pretty name it was! And I would grind my teeth, and agree, because why get into all of that with strangers.


When I’m referring to my own younger self as Geen, or when one particular girl cousin is calling me Geen, the name feels playful, fun, strong, interesting, and something I’m proud of — I named myself!

When other people in my family of origin call me Geen, I feel differently.

When my 2-years-younger brother calls me Geen, he might as well be calling me Muck. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he knew that. If, indeed, that might be the attraction.

Still, I would get e-mails from this brother, addressed to Geen, I would grit my teeth, and then I would think/feel to myself, “he must be doing this because he’s fond of me, so I guess it makes sense to continue . . . trying . . . to have a relationship with this person.”

In retrospect, I’m flabbergasted — both at the self-talk, and at my response to it. But for 15 years, this seemed normal. This seemed like an obligation that could not be changed.

And while I was still going by nicknames based on my original first name, I guess I felt like any one of them was . . . sort of interchangeable . . . with any other one.

Also, of course, there was no reason whatsoever to think that anyone would care what my preference might be.


In April, I got an e-mail from that brother, addressed to Geen. In my response, I said, “I’m going by Mea now.” I didn’t expect to hear back from him, but I did. He asked me why “Mea”; used the word “intrigued”.

If he had used some other word, well, I don’t know what I would’ve said. But “intrigued” was irresistible because (to me)  it implied genuine interest, a rare commodity indeed from a relative.

So I answered at some length.

This was almost like a conversation! (Another rare occurrence with a relative) I was very interested to hear what his reaction would be.


Not unexpected, of course, but not what I hoped for.


Several months later, I heard from my brother again. Wishing me a happy birthday.

He addressed me as Geen.

I felt . . . rage. But also helplessness and fear. I literally had no idea what to do. So I wrote to Captain Awkward. To my surprise, someone answered right away, privately. They suggested that I not respond to my brother at all, unless and until he addressed me as “Mea”.

That advice seemed really drastic. But I took it.

Naturally I never heard back from my brother at all. It’s not like we have a relationship.


So now here’s this holiday card.

It’s certainly possible that my e-mail exchange with my brother is not something he shared with his wife. So I can’t fault her for how she addressed the envelope. Also, she has always struck me as a very nice person. (I have no idea what she sees in my brother.)

And yet, people in my extended family of origin gossip, a lot. One of my aunts wrote to me earlier this year, and had no problem switching to calling me “Mea”. The two cousins I’ve seen in person this year have had no trouble making the switch. Their parents . . . have had a little trouble, but they’re both almost 80 years old — I can cut them some slack while they work on remembering.


The iconic moments of my relationship with my brother are filled with my feelings of frustration, that rapidly became panic and hysteria. I felt helpless, trapped, terrified. This happened with some frequency. In the beginning, I went to my parents for help. They told me we had to “work it out between the two of us”. My brother was taller, outweighed me by at least 50 pounds, was an athlete who lifted weights regularly.  And he was mean. I was a pacifist. Gee, I wonder how “working it out between ourselves” is gonna go? Yeah, I got my ass kicked.

I didn’t like it. I raged against the fairness of it all in my mind. But I put up with it because . . . I was the family scapegoat, and my role was to get my ass kicked. I’m guessing I was eventually supposed to get resigned, and accept contempt as just what I deserved.

I never did accept it.


Thinking about this holiday card, walking, walking, walking some more, I realized Fear was my friend here. Now that I’m listening to my fears — really listening — they’ve been telling me some things I wouldn’t have guessed I was feeling. And the more I tease out those shy hidden feelings, the more a lot of things I’ve always been puzzled by start to make sense.

I barely know my sister-in-law, and I don’t know at all my 2 nieces. I hope, for their sakes, that my brother is a better husband and father than he was a brother to me.

I never want anyone to feel helpless and afraid, being around me.

But when I feel afraid, I listen to that fear. Fear gives me information that my conscious mind may be too beleaguered / confused /overwhelmed to know how to handle appropriately.

Is my brother still a physical threat to me? Probably not. I’ve been away from the family a long time — he’s probably found some other relative(s) to mistreat. I would guess he probably also bullies people at work, or people he knows socially.


Now that I am in a place of safety, separated from my childhood by many years and hundreds of miles, my friend Fear shows me that . . . some of my favorite relatives terrorized me, and laughed when I protested.

Why did their poor behavior not count against them in my mind? Well, pretty much everyone in my family treated me poorly. To me, that was normal.

Beyond that, though, my favorite uncle and my favorite older boy cousin forged their own destinies, sought out adventures, lived their lives on their own terms. That unconventionality kept them in conflict with authority figures in their own families. That’s what I admired. That’s what I wanted to emulate.

As an adult, I tried to develop a relationship with that uncle before he died; with that cousin. Didn’t work. Maybe we were too different after all.

Maybe they turned their own inner fears outward, using them to terrorize other people? I’ll never know — people in my family don’t talk about their feelings.

I talk about my feelings. I write about my feelings. And I am not ashamed of my feelings, or of myself. I honor and respect and embrace all my feelings, including Fear.

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