My friend Cassidy and I are standing on the porch during a thunderstorm in the middle of the country, St. Louis, Missouri. We’re talking about the first person who taught us not to be afraid of storms.
When I was a kid, my older sister shared a bedroom with me. If thunder rolled and lightning began, I ran around the house rolling down the shades, so I would not have to see the sky. It felt safer that way. My sister pulled up the shades and brought me to the window. She told me the storms weren’t frightening but beautiful. She told me to watch them; she taught me to see beauty in my moment of fear. After that, I no longer felt panic when it rained.
In December this past year, I was sitting in my apartment with Cassidy, telling her my fears about pursuing my dreams. Those critical ideas that are as potentially powerful as a tornado, potentially as damaging. At times, I wonder if it is worth criticism, pain, failure, and sacrifice. What sane person believes that a cause can sustain them?
It was that moment in December when Cassidy told me that I was lucky to be as emboldened with an idea that I felt compelled to risk safety and comfort. “Not everybody has something they’re willing to make sacrifices for.” She helped me see my privilege and my power. What do I really know about fear? It is not going to cost me my life to fight for what I believe in. I recently listened to the founder of AtlasCorps describe nonprofit leaders who risk everything to fight for causes in countries where violence could shut them down. For my cause, I am not going to be put on a hit list like Shirin Ebadi was when she defended the rights of women and girls in Iran. I cannot fathom being pulled off a bus and shot in the head for going to school. I need to take my lessons in fear from those who have the most at stake.
We all have our lives at stake. If I do not get over my fear now, I am just one more person who accepts the way the world is, which is not a world I want. If I believe in the dangerous things like education, peace, respect, and equality, my fate is intimately connected to the fate of a child who wants an education. My fear is bound up with her fear. The sooner I get over myself, the sooner I can stand for something.
Every person who puts their life on the line for a better world teaches me that whatever set backs might occur, whatever home is destroyed or dream destructed, oppression encountered, to have a dream and a person who believes in it is more powerful than the most hungry of natural disasters, the most violent of regimes. To help those devastated by tragedy, to fight the evil forces that creep in in the aftermath of destruction, or in the moment of poverty: I am reminded of William Kamkwamba who harnessed the wind in Malawi; I think of Abigail in Liberia who now goes to school because Katie in New Jersey realized life is bigger than herself. I think of Shabana Basij-Rasikh in Afghanistan, who dressed like a boy in order to go to school, and ended up founding a school to help children like herself gain the education they deserve. At times, her students study under the threat of death. Beneath the threat of gunshot wounds, people like Malala fight for larger causes. There is nothing more dangerous than deciding not to be afraid. Or, maybe, we are afraid every second of the way but push through the fear because someone told us we are powerful enough, we stand for something meaningful enough, and we can help someone feel hopeful enough along the way.
In a way, the most powerful gift you can give someone is to teach him or her not to fear fear. My sister gave me that in the face of thunderstorms. Malala gives that to girls around the world in the face of violence. It is an incredible power that changes retreat into victory, terror into triumph. Imagine what we could achieve together if we helped each other face of fear instead of succumbing to our own. Half the time, no one knows how scared you are anyway. So, fake it until you become it, act like you are powerful and you will be, but make sure your life is about helping others feel powerful too. We all have our lives at stake.