Living Scared

I was flying across the country the other week and reading the late Marina Keegan’s piece “Even Artichokes Have Doubts.” In it she discusses why 25 percent of Yale grads end up in consulting or finance, when if you think about it, no one enters college intending to be a consultant.

She concludes,

“What bothers me is this idea of validation, of rationalization. The notion that some of us (regardless of what we tell ourselves) are doing this because we’re not sure what else to do and it’s easy to apply to and it will pay us decently and it will make us feel like we’re still successful …  I’m JUST SCARED about this industry that’s taking all my friends and telling them this is the best way for them to be spending their time. Any of their time. Maybe I’m ignorant and idealistic but I just feel like that can’t possibly be true. I feel like we know that. I feel like we can do something really cool to this world. And I fear — at 23, 24, 25 — we might forget.”

Keegan is expressing how fear becomes a lot of people’s biggest motivator — the fear that we won’t be successful, we won’t seem successful, drives us into the safety net of Capital.

Keegan’s on to something, but I think it starts a lot earlier than 23.

It starts somewhere around the time we’re toddlers.

One of my good friends recently told me about a piece titled “The Average Fourth Grader Is a Better Poet Than You (And Me Too),” by Hannah Gamble.

Gamble was an MFA student who went into elementary, middle, and high school classrooms to teach poetry.

At the elementary school level, she witnessed beautiful poems written by fourth graders that’d include lines like:

“The life of my heart is crimson.”

Or:

“Away went a dull winter wind

that rocked harshly, and bent you said,

‘Father, father’.”

But by the time you hit middle and high school, kids are already talking in cliches and preformed narratives.

“Snacking on this and that

my friends and I keep the party going

even when it is over”

Or:

“Barack Obama in the White House.

I can feel the inspiration

Can you feel it?”

I found this so fascinating, and so sad. Somewhere between childhood and adolescence, social filters take their grip and we lose the carefreeness of youthful expression. We become regulated.

Granted, the adult world imposes its fears on children from infancy. Boys aren’t to play with dolls not because male toddlers are born with a predisposition for trucks and trains, but because their parents operate in a world where there are limits. And so their children too, must limit themselves.

But even so, children manage to find the weird, the uncanny, the strange. That’s why we marvel at the “cute things kids say.” They have yet to apply social filters on how to speak, how to behave. Somewhere around middle school, all of that changes.

Suddenly we need social validation. We lose the eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, save for a small minority. We were raised on Disney, Millennial pop culture, and its mantra of “be yourself,” but we don’t really want to be ourselves because being free means being exiled. Shut the door on expression.

Once we hit college, we have fully bent to whatever pre-written narratives society has crafted for us. Even though it’s okay to fail, the overarching emotion riding these narratives is fear: don’t be a failure. Don’t be a loser. Don’t.

Hence, a quarter of Yale grads, and I’m sure grads at many collegiate institutions, enter fields like consulting and finance. Or really, any field that they don’t actually want to be in.

And then, by the age of 30, the casting of the plaster is complete. We’re settled, we’re stable. No point rocking the boat now. On Kendrick Lamar’s “Mortal Man,” we hear 2Pac say:

“Cause once you turn 30 it’s like they take the heart and soul out of a man, out of a black man in this country. And you don’t wanna fight no more. And if you don’t believe me you can look around, you don’t see no loud mouth 30-year old muthafuckas.”

Thirty years. By then the fear is normalized, an intrinsic part of our beings, which then gets cycled down to the next generation.

Of course, I can’t speak for everyone here. But I know you know what I’m saying. I’m living scared too.

The worst is when that fear translates not only at the individual level, in our career and life choices, but at the societal level. Fear, also known as phobia, becomes homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia … misogyny, racism, etc, etc. We fear what we don’t know, for ourselves, and for others.

I don’t really know what I’m getting at with this. You’ve heard this before. Seize the fucking day, why don’t you?

We tend to seize the nights instead. Seize the weekends. Seize it within a festival setting, because that’s when it’s socially acceptable to not give a fuck (and don’t forget to pay up while you’re at it).

I’m already starting to see it amongst my friends. We’re in our early twenties and the fear is beginning to set. We’re afraid to even change our opinions on issues, because then what does that say about us, we’re a bunch of flip-floppers?

Stay woke, fools. Phobia never helped a goddamn soul.

3 thoughts on “Living Scared

  1. I think you start to touch on something really profound when talking about fear on a societal level. What it comes down to is expectations: we are afraid to not live up to the expectations placed on us, especially students from a prestigious college like Yale. They could take the consulting job that is “good enough,” or they could take a risk: a risk that would lead to fortune or to demise. To meeting expectations, or missing the mark. And I think, on a societal level, this fear does breed the plethora of -phobias you listed, because those people (LGBT, Islamic, etc.) are already not inherently “meeting expectations” according to society. They are already risk-takers by being themselves in the open, by pursing lives where they face racism and bigotry every day. You get a culture of resentment, of “why don’t you just shut up about your individuality and ‘meet expectations’ like the rest of us,” or worse, “you are not like me or trying to be like me, so there must be something wrong with you and you are threatening my way of life.”

    Is it as easy as “seize the fucking day,” though? I don’t think this is something that can be changed on an individual level. Right now our society favors stability and safety over innovation and risk. There is no safety net for risk-takers and entrepreneurs, and therefore there is no incentive to do anything more than “meet expectations.” I think your example with the poetry is great because it perfectly represents how we value obedience in our education system over creativity. You are absolutely right that this is ingrained in us since childhood. But none of this will change until the public attitude shifts on a fundamental level.

    1. Totally right! The line about seizing the day was meant more ironically, but yeah, it’s kinda crazy how all of this starts so young. Thanks for your thoughts🙂

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