All the Pretty Horses

Long before morning I knew that what I was seeking to discover was a thing I’d always known. That all courage was a form of constancy. That it was always himself that the coward abandoned first. After this all other betrayals came easily. I knew that courage came with less struggle for some than for others but I believed that anyone who desired it could have it. That the desire was the thing itself…. I could think of nothing else of which that was true. — Cormac McCarthy

I’ve always aspired to be a person of courage. This word comes from the French for “heart,” and I’ve thought it would be enough if my tombstone read, truthfully, “She had heart.” In his beautiful novel All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy writes that the desire for courage is the thing itself, but I’m dubious of this assertion, poetic though it is.

One reason I can’t claim bravery is the sheer number and variety of my fears. A partial resume: heights, enclosed spaces, large animals, small children, public speaking, hospitals, power tools, electrical outlets, introducing myself to people I don’t know, driving in large cities, dying alone, making the same mistake over and over. It seems new sources of trepidation are added (or emerge into consciousness) daily. Even worse, obstacles don’t cease to intimidate me after I’ve cleared them once or twice, or even dozens of times. Which seems both counterintuitive and downright unfair.

To me there’s a continental divide between longing for a quality and embodying it. Unless the longing is accompanied by a huge effort. One of my resolutions this year was to pay attention to the specter of fear, and how I engage with it. I have plenty of opportunities to do this because one of my jobs regularly requires me to do things that terrify me.

Why did I take this job? I thought it would be interesting to see what happened: whether I could do the things I was afraid of or not. And I believe the work is meaningful, so there’s reason to persevere past the fear, or hurtle over it. Although otherwise not a fan of track in school, I loved jumping hurdles. It felt true to life: that you run along, and up pops one thing after another, and you have to find a way over or around or under them. Run, leap/dodge, repeat. I found this rhythm more interesting than straight running — thrilling, even.

I once asked a psychologist sitting next to me at lunch: Why are the things we fear and those we love often the same? He looked at me quizzically and said, “I don’t think most people are like that.” I thought he must not be a very good therapist if he made people who talked to him feel they were weird. Or maybe it was just me. Perhaps if I’d introduced myself?

Unlike track, life doesn’t usually offer prizes for meeting mundane fears and refusing, politely or defiantly, to stand down. But once in a while, there’s a photo.

I saw this guy all the way down the beach, rearing and kicking his hind legs. Telling my companion, “I’ve always been scared of horses,” I planned to give him a wide berth. But as we drew up, I thought, How often does this happen? This is an opportunity; he’s right here. I walked over to the young woman holding him and confided my misgivings. She gave me a carrot to feed him, and I patted his forehead. (I’d like to point out that although we look the same height in the photo, he was MUCH bigger.) Just when my breathing was stabilizing, the young woman remarked brightly that she’d trained him to kiss — on the mouth. I looked that day’s gift horse in the mouth and decided we didn’t need to rush. “We just met,” I demurred. “Maybe next time.”

For the rest of the day, I savored a quiet jubilation. “I patted a horse,” I reminded myself, less in triumph than wonder. “If that can happen, what can’t happen?”

I think this is what I love most about walking into fear: it widens the world of possibility. What I’m seeking to discover is a thing I’ve always known: anything can happen — the root of all our fears and also the reason for hope.