I remember being terrified. Insidious. That’s what it was, long before I knew what the word meant. At any moment, the childhood I knew and the future I imagined would shatter like the rotten teeth of a dream. This fear that simmered just below the surface, leaving a choice in its wake: give voice to the fear and risk giving it form, or be bound by the internal struggle and risk being consumed by it. Two paths. Two unknowns. Neither free from risk.
Fear. The other “F word.” The far more destructive though decidedly less trendy one to toss around at cocktail parties. In the context of life on the trail, I’ve written about its many forms in posts like Irrational Fear, Hitchhiking 101, The Death of Puritanism, and What About Bears?. But what I find most fascinating about fear is how it informs what we do, what we don’t do, and why.
None of us is immune to it. For the better part of my childhood and adolescence I was consumed by hypochondria, a fear that at any moment my life was about to change irrevocably for the worse. Not the kind of consumption that was the prose of a story. It was the punctuation in each quiet space between the words. Easily hidden from or overlooked by others. Inescapable. So consuming, in fact, that my boyhood mind could conceive of only one option: to one day become a doctor and amass knowledge as the antidote to my demons. An entire life’s trajectory shaped by fear.
Or so it might have been. Fast-forward a couple of decades and you’d find me not only healthy and not a doctor, but you’d also be hard-pressed to find someone who’s had it better in life and in health than I have. College, graduate school, a best friend-turned-wife, an engineering career surrounded by brilliant colleagues and engrossing work, with opportunities to hike through some of America’s most beautiful wilderness areas often for months at a time. It’s only in looking back that I realize how overcoming my childhood fear is what has shaped so much of the path that I’ve since followed.
Look deeply enough and you’ll find that fear and change dance a complicated sort of tango. Whereas fear can often motivate change, so too can the prospect of change manifest a fear that so powerfully preserves the status quo. Inertia, as it turns out, is as challenging to overcome as gravity is to a rocket ship.
Perhaps most cruelly, in light of its implicit challenge, is this simple truth: nothing ever changes without overcoming fear. Far removed from my childhood fear, I found myself living what—from the outside—could only be described as a successful, fulfilled life, with all the proverbial boxes having neatly been checked. But what I’d found at the bottom of that checklist was less a feeling of satisfaction and more a feeling of: Is this all there is? A path of ever-increasing work stretching off into life’s distance and with it a narrowing of possibilities, a winnowing of exploration, of self-growth?
Hope, possibility, and dreams. That’s what I saw when I looked back at my younger self. And yet, without even noticing, it was precisely those things that I’d allowed to drain from the life I now led. A narrowing worldview of self-importance driven by the only tangible thing I could see around me and ahead of me on life’s path: my career. To think it could happen to me was the biggest surprise. I’d been the lucky one after all. The one who’d had unilaterally exceptional and supportive colleagues. The one who’d had ever-evolving, always interesting work to occupy myself with. But even that hadn’t spared me from allowing it to consume every last breath of oxygen from my life. A wildfire grown out of control and I was holding the match.
What struck me even more was the toll it now exacted both in myself and in others I saw around me who’d made similarly Faustian bargains: an ebbing of openness, a recession of empathy, and a worldview where subtle communication of status and standing had seemingly replaced actual humanity and perspective. Worst of all, I wasn’t merely a victim of it. I’d become complicit in it. My own cynicism joining the midlife chorus of what now passed for wisdom. That’s when I knew: it was time to go.
It should have been easy except for, well, what was I saying about fear and change? Leaving the Path Taken and the steady job and expected career path that comes with it is not something that society at large is readily equipped to understand, let alone reward. We’re well conditioned to build an ever-growing list of reasons why one should not do such a thing—a list that prizes security and familiarity, often above all else. A list that defines that very inertia against which all potentially life-altering decisions must summon an argument. It’s no wonder we often stay exactly where we are.
When I first considered tearing up that list, I was afraid. Until something unexpected took its place: anger. Anger at allowing fear to make life’s decisions for me, to blot the sunlight of turning a new page and to see where it might lead. Little did I realize that, in ways big and small, I’d already been taking the road less traveled by for far longer than I’d noticed. Maybe I could do this after all. A leap that wasn’t a leap at all. Just a choice followed by yet more choices.
There’s a big world out there, and I intend to see it. To hike it, to write about it, to share with others where it takes me, and maybe—just maybe—inspire others to seek their own path less traveled. Let’s put Robert Frost to the test.