Last Sunday I was finishing up a 2-day, 40-mile bike ride to celebrate my 40th birthday, and it took me past a house where I knew there were dogs. They’d barked at me before but never left the yard; I didn’t even see any there this time. Nevertheless I geared up and pedaled harder, just in case. When I was almost past the house, a big hound-mix came galloping from of nowhere, ears flying, barking in a deep bellow with an undernote of growl. She was serious, and really fast. For a cyclist, the clicking of claws on asphalt is an awful sound. I shouted, “Go home! Bad dog!” and pedaled as hard as I could. Soon she’d slowed and dropped away. “A faster bike” just moved up a spot on the wish-list.
Today, on an even more beautiful early-fall afternoon, I had the urge to ride, again. What about my other favorite route, in the opposite direction? It’s good for the weekend — about 20 miles, with a mix of hills and surfaces. But suddenly all I could think about was the house where I’d seen dogs on that road, too. What if they chased me and I couldn’t outrun them? What would happen then? Maybe I should just ride the dedicated bike loop around town, again. But I prefer to save the loop for the hour between work and dark when the sun’s setting and I don’t have much time. And I knew that rising, breathless pressure in my chest — the signature feeling of a fear you are letting take ahold of you in what is probably defiance of reality — couldn’t be allowed to back me down. I couldn’t let it make the decision for me. The knowledge that I’d succumbed to that paranoia is usually worse than the fear itself. So despite trepidation, I set out.
I powered up a big hill and down more hills and up again. The wild grapevines twined over the fences, the clouds were etched in bright gold, the sky was clear blue – a perfect early-September day. This is not so bad, I thought, the dogs won’t be there, surely they won’t. Yet as I approached The House where the Dogs Had Been That One Time, I shifted into my highest gear and hit the pedals as hard as I could. I was sprinting, flat-out (even though for me that’s not really all that fast.) My heart was pounding. I looked to the side. And – no dogs were anywhere in sight.
Lately it’s been feeling like everything is meaningful, every person and event has something to teach. And this pair of cycling days is teaching me, as part of a network of now-I’m-40 issues in personal life, spirit, and career. How can I keep fear from running me, like a dog runs cattle? How do I keep from bolting for dear life when some (often imagined) worry darts from its hiding place and hares into view, chasing me as hard as it can pelt? How can I know the sensible concern from the urgent dart of terror of the Bad Thing Happening that any of us can feel and that, if we let it, would keep us huddled on our couches all the time?
Fear does change, I think, as we get older. What felt like the generalized, omnipresent uncertainty of my 20s and the more specifically focused what-if-I-never [get a job/finish this degree/pay off this debt] concern of my 30s is now getting weirdly, sneakily focused: the late 30s and now 40s (all one week of them) are feeling like a sunny savanna on which I wander purposefully, doing my thing and making my contributions, feeling happy and content with where I am, but then suddenly dodging a tree that falls out of nowhere. Fear comes in infrequent but dramatic spikes, built on sudden what-if, often involuntary imaginings. And I don’t think I’m the only one. At this age, we have all seen enough to know what can crop up suddenly, out of nowhere. We have more at stake with every year. Our parents, our siblings, our children, our friends, the people we love, our own mortal bodies, our jobs, our houses, our retirement accounts — all are, in Francis Bacon’s phrase, hostages to fortune. The more you have at stake, the more you stand to lose, and the older and more experienced you are in the world, the more you know reality isn’t always a sunny place.
Yet — and this is a typically hard but necessary kind of spiritual truth — the more aware of danger you are, the more closely and carefully you have to work to both protect yourself (reasonably) and keep going forward anyway. It’s a version of what you learn from head-balance: a feeling is sometimes just a feeling, not a reality, and, as Anne Lamott says, “doing difficult things is weight-training for life.” Sometimes being apprehensive about something means that you should proceed with it, because in retrospect you’ll be glad you did, and you will be welcoming in a kind of gift or a kind of knowledge you wouldn’t otherwise have. I have seen this truth in my own writing life — and in the lives of my students, particularly beginning and hesitant writers — every single day. A common remark in my creative-writing class evaluations is “I’m a science major and I never thought I was ‘creative,’ so taking this course really scared me, but I’m so glad I did.” William Deresiewicz writes that “some fears are legitimate, but the ones that are born from insecurity are signals telling you to march resolutely toward them.”
March, or pedal, or enroll in that class, or take a breath and speak. Nothing is worse than that feeling of stifling, airless worry that freezes you in place and keeps you from taking action — and the knowledge underneath it that you just may be your own worst enemy here, you are worrying about something that will likely never happen, you are blocking your own flourishing before you even give it a chance to take root. That is the worst feeling of all.
So, onward and dogless, I kept pedaling just to work the adrenaline out of my legs and decelerated just about the time a flock of guinea hens from a nearby house went hurrying away from the road, consternating in their high scratchy voices. My laughter was high on delight and relief, kind of unhinged. No dogs. No reason to be afraid after all. And then, around the next corner, came a man on a horse, out for a Sunday ride along the road. I stopped so the bike wouldn’t frighten the horse (I grew up with them) and we had a really pleasant chat; his wife, it turns out, had been a colleague of mine, way back. The horse wasn’t fazed by the bike, or by the two trucks with rattly trailers that came behind us as we talked, or by the rustlings in the corn. He stood at ease, switching his tail, just happy to be where he was. And there’s a lesson in that.