53: Only fear.

- December 10, 2017 -

I’ve been making my way through Yann Martel’s Life of Pi these last few days, having just come to it now after reading his other books.

As those who know me can readily attest on account of my extensive gushing, Martel is far and away one of my favourite contemporary authors, one whose work I admire tremendously for its profundity of insight. And, as luck would have it, we happen to live in the same small Canadian city, so I’ve even had the good fortune to attend many of his talks over the years.

I’m rather a latecomer to this wonderful, Man Booker Prize-winning work, but I won’t go on to say too much more about it here. I will say, though, that it most certainly lives up to its considerable praise, and that I would recommend it to anyone.

In the way that books so often are when they make their way into our lives, this one has proved to be a very timely companion as of late, bringing me one moment of zen after another as I navigate my way through a simultaneously hectic and critically important period in my professional life. I was especially struck, for instance, by the passage I’ve excerpted below, in which Pi — the main character — is recounting his experiences as a castaway on the Pacific Ocean:

“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary… It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. … One moment you are feeling calm, self-possessed, happy. Then fear, disguised in the garb of mild-mannered doubt, slips into your mind like a spy. Doubt meets disbelief and disbelief tries to push it out. But disbelief is a poorly armed foot soldier. Doubt does away with it with little trouble. … Reason comes to do battle for you. You are reassured. Reason is fully equipped with the latest weapons technology. But, to your amazement, despite superior tactics and a number of undeniable victories, reason is laid low. You feel yourself weakening, wavering. …

Quickly you make rash decisions. You dismiss your last allies: hope and trust. There, you’ve defeated yourself. Fear, which is but an impression, has triumphed over you.”

My brief selection doesn’t do justice to the full force of Martel’s words (this section spans nearly two pages in the book), but I think it gives you a good sense as to why I found it such a compelling, such a powerful statement.

I particularly loved what he says about fear’s ability to “slip into your mind like a spy” merely on account of its being dressed, being costumed as “mild-mannered doubt.” How true that is, how often we allow precisely that to happen. How often we rationalize our fear by imbuing it with any number of positive traits, traits which it in no way deserves, even going so far as to insist that it is healthy, that it is necessary for us to be so tightly focused on the negative in this way.

I wrote to you last week about wanting, and about how much of a change it provoked in my life when I first decided to start defending my wants. But this, I think, is now a good time to highlight the fact that it was fear that so often kept me from wanting.

Fear of disappointing others, of overstepping my bounds, of making the wrong decision. Or, fear of making the right decision, but of not being good enough to see it through. Fear that I couldn’t be good enough, fear that I was wasting my time trying. Fear that I was too late, that I had taken too long to decide and had missed my chance. Fear that I wanted the wrong things, or fear that I was mistaken about what the right things were.

I don’t know that there is any way in which we can avoid fear altogether, though, nor do I think that we should want to erase it from our lives entirely. Because, to be sure, there are times when fear — real, substantiated fear — is an asset. But I do think that we need to become better about being watchful for the unsubstantiated fears which so permeate our lives, watchful for the ways in which, as Pi describes, they progress through our minds with “unerring ease.” Because, if we let it, there really is no end to what fear can keep us from doing. In so many ways, it is, indeed, as Pi says, “life’s only true opponent.”


Waving from my desk,
– J


This piece comes from Jana Marie’s newsletter, The Sunday Letters. You can sign up to receive future editions below.