Fear and Apathy

What follows is a written version of a 10-minute jag I started off my British Literature survey class with today. Seth Godin podcasts plus the time of the semester plus my own need to write a conference paper in the coming weeks plus my desire to help students write their own research papers for my class led to this.

We’re at the point in the semester where many of you are feeling one of two things about this class: fear or apathy. Fear because you’re scared of failure. Apathy because you just don’t care about anything we’ve read or certainly anything you’ve been asked to write about.

Because next week is your final moment to drop the course with just a “W” and because we’re now almost exactly a month from your paper’s due date, these twin titans are worth considering because they’re each leading you to crisis point: what do you do?

Each of these emotions has its complication, a twist of the knife that’s led you to this specific point where you’ve asked this question about what you’re supposed to do next.

If you’re apathetic, your complication is the amount of time and money you’ve already sunk into this class. No one here has failed because of attendance which means you’ve logged over 20 hours just showing up, not to mention time you’ve spent reading the book. The there’s the monetary cost. You’re spending, on average, between $2000-$2500 to be in this class. Neither that time nor that money is going to get refunded. It’s spent.

If you’re fearful, on the other hand, you’re dealing with the possibility that you might fail, and that might be informed by your experience writing papers for the last ten years and constantly being told you can’t read well and can’t write well. Trying really hard and then getting a paper back with a bad grade on it–that’s the fate you’re afraid awaits you and you want to avoid it like the plague so you haven’t gotten started yet.

Now these two reactions are related. People often get militantly apathetic about something as a way of heading fear off at the pass. Instead of addressing the fear or being paralyzed by it, some people decide to quit caring. If you’re apathetic and you’re listening to me now, the only way back to caring is to welcome fear first and then address that anxiety.

So what’s the answer if you’re apathetic? My advice is pretty simple. If you genuinely don’t care about this class, withdraw. Quitting is not a moral failing. Quitting smoking or overeating or serially lying to your loved ones is not a failure. Sometimes quitting is the smart move. I’m not telling you to quit college. I’m advising you to quit this class by next week if you don’t care because the exams, research paper, and final–not to mention the time it will take to complete the readings–won’t be worth it. Focus on the four classes you care about. Come back to this class another semester.

If you’re in the “I’m scared” camp, my advice is pretty simple too: lean into the tension. What does this practically mean? It means the next time you think to yourself “I need to start working on my research paper” and you get that little twinge of anxiety or discomfort, you acknowledge it as a sign that you need to work on your research paper right then and there for fifteen minutes. Don’t turn away from that anxiety. Lean into it. Face it. Dance with it.

If you takeaway one thing from this class, it could very well be this skill: a greater ability to lean into fear and negotiate with it and still get your work done. You may hand in this paper and get a ‘D’ on it. If you tried hard in the face of very real anxiety, it will still be a win because you will have shown yourself the ability to do something you were afraid of and not die when it didn’t go perfectly.

You will never find a fear-free zone. It doesn’t exist. I say this as a husband and a father who just went through a week where a serious hurricane was coming toward our home city. For a moment I had to consider the possibility that our home wouldn’t be the same when we came back to it after the storm. The thought made me sad. But the thought of losing my house is nothing compared to the thought of losing my wife and daughter. Guess what my reward for getting through a day where Catherine didn’t have anything bad happen to her? Another day where I face the possibility of her getting sick or something bad happening in the world or a whole myriad of things that might make her life difficult. My ability to dance with the fear of losing my wife and daughter doesn’t mean I don’t have to get up and care for them each morning. It just makes each day easier knowing I did it the day before.

What does leaning into the tension look like? Well, it gives you a sense of what important work you’re hiding from. It’s actually a kind of beacon shedding light on the work you need to have the courage to do.

An example: a month ago I spent a couple of weeks praying and planning a new set of goals built around my various roles: disciple, teacher, husband, friend, father, etc. When I had completed the process, I listed the roles in order of priority and wrote out my goal next to each one. When I finished, I knew I wasn’t done. Typically, I would store the goals away in my memory and try to actualize them without telling anyone. I knew that this was part of the reason they failed. I needed to share them with my wife.

And the last thing I wanted to do was share them with my wife.

First, it would make me accountable. She would see what I was aiming for and could hold my feet to the fire if I fell short.

Second, I knew I had to ask her if she was on board with them. That is, I had to give her the power to change them if she felt my priorities were out of whack or my actual goals weren’t worth pursuing.

I didn’t want to necessarily do either of those things, but I knew it was the kind of thing that my goal-setting process was designed to help me do. And so I did. She read it in five minutes and said okay. It was far worse in my head than it was in actuality.

And so it is with this research paper you’re scared of writing. Share it. Get it out in the world. Send me a draft. Talk about it with a classmate. Dance with the fear today. I’ll be on the dance floor with you.

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Fear and Apathy

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