Fear — and getting over it

betty ming liu Art, Inspiration, Writing how-to's 33 Comments

the scream thumbnailI just turned 55. And I am scared. The feeling reminds me of quarter-life angst except worse. After all, a half-life crisis involves twice as much emotional baggage. But thankfully, there’s also the potential for twice as much wisdom — which I discovered during a birthday morning visit with the shrink.

My regular Monday session began with the same issues that troubled me at 25: I haven’t accomplished enough with my life. How am I ever going to amount to anything? What if I die a nobody? I’m ashamed of my whining when there’s true suffering in the world.

As the therapeutic conversation warmed up, the 25-year-old version of me didn’t look so bad after all. In 1981, that younger Betty was annoying her mother by dating a black man and working as a rookie in New Jersey’s low-paying newspapers. She went on to exciting times that included becoming the first Asian American staffer at every publication that hired her. The marriage pulled both her and her husband out of their respective ghetto childhoods. They threw themselves into a whirlwind routine filled with resort vacations, four-star restaurant dinners and fancy cars.

Even though I was scared then, my life was still ahead of me. There was a career ladder to climb and a marriage to manage. The conventional structure felt safe. I knew what steps to take —

“You mean, you knew what mistakes to make,” Dr. Shrink interrupted. We both laughed. He was right. After 15 years in daily journalism, I got out. After 17 years of marriage, I got out.

Those two moves left a decade-long void. Today, fear comes from the effort of once again reinventing myself. The issues are different now because I am staring at the horizon line of my own mortality. It’s no longer about landing the first job or looking forward to the first marriage. There is no template for this stage where aging baby boomers like me are wrestling with what to do after multiple careers and relationships.

  • I’m scared because I’ve become a perpetual freelancer. This is the most dismal job market since the Great Depression. Being an adjunct assistant professor means that instead of being on staff and enjoying a steady salary, I get paid by the class. While I love my freedom, there’s no financial security.
  • I’m scared by my creative dreams. Who am I to think that I can become an author and painter at this late stage? At 55, the effort of taking on new roles is exhausting.
  • I’m scared by the prospect of a lasting relationship. My boyfriend has been around for nearly 11 months. I’m not sure what’s more terrifying about being with him — the intimacy of genuine possibility or, the possibility of genuine intimacy.

In talking to Dr. Shrink, I realized that the scariest thing about being 55 is that I’m not actually looking for a new me. I just want the original me, the one I could’ve been if I wasn’t scarred by my immigrant parents’ best intentions. Their defensiveness about being not good enough runs so deep. My confidence always fails when I start thinking of myself as being hopelessly outside the American mainstream…

Blathering about this stuff helped. Eventually, Dr. Shrink got me to a new emotional space. I walked out of his office realizing that the fear I feel is just a part of risk-taking. F-e-a-r might be a four-letter word but it’s not necessarily a negative. Taking creative, emotional and financial risks is exciting — and dangerous. Which means that fear and excitement are a yin-yang package deal. Period.

So I think I can accept the new reality, at least until my three-quarter life crisis. I also know that I’m not alone. There are plenty of folks of all ages who are experimenting. They are my people, my community, my race.

They are called “entrepreneurs.”



Comments 33

  1. Post

    i love that story about your aunt! she bought herself a good violin and not some cheap inferior thing. a sign that she valued herself. very inspiring. thanks, anna! i’ll keep at it too. the thing is, as you say, to just work with the fear and let it take us to better places. :

  2. Hi Betty:

    I love this post! I’m in that stage where I’m about to go back to grad school after years of paralyzing fear that I’d never get into a school good enough or do well enough. It took me 7 years of working and moving away from my parents to realize that it wasn’t about them, it was about me.

    They (and others in their generation) always remark about how our generation is “so lucky.” They didn’t have the chances we have. They didn’t have the freedom to choose what they wanted to pursue in life, to take a risk on something they really wanted. They say these things with equal parts sadness and disdain. My reply is always: aren’t these opportunities what you came to another country for? I am always thankful that you have given us this great gift of opportunity.

    I still struggle with the idea of pleasing them but it inspires me everyday that you’ve found your own path and have still managed to be happy and healthy.

  3. 55? Ah sweet bird of youth! At 56, the publisher of our magazine and I founded Out In Jersey, which is now among the top LGBT regionals in the U.S. – oh hell – in the freaking WORLD!! (forgive my immodesty) and subsequently informally adopted five gay sons who all had to be shepparded through college (two still in process) as well as seen through a virtually endless series of crises – some ephemeral – some very serious as well as doing the laundry and the housework (my wonderful husband of many years is a continual delight to live with but has absolutely NO domestic genes whatever- if it was up to him, the house would fall down around him and he wouldn’t notice until something hit him on the head.) My point is, life might be said to BEGIN at that age. At least it begins anew. Of course, it begins anew every day. I know I love every minute of it. Fear? What’s there to be afraid of? The worst that can happen is we die and that’s going to happen anyway. Meanwhile, live every minute. There’s always something wonderful happening.

  4. Post

    steph, you’re stepping up to the plate. go for that grad school, girl! it takes a lot for us to realize that it’s no longer about our parents. this isn’t just an asian guilt thing but we seem to have a bad case of that disease. keep us posted on your adventures!

    and toby, you’re on a huge adventure too. your description of division of duties is a riot. i can’t imagine five children — let alone an all-gay household of two dads and five boys. this sounds like a potential sitcom. and honey, i’m with you — it’s all about living in the moment. it’s just that sometimes, that moment can be so immediate that it’s scary. :)

  5. I know exactly what you are going thru. I’m totally the same (which is probably why I am so enchanted by your blog). The same paralyzing fear of being old and antiquated. But just remember, it’s all in the mind. People, when you think of it, are mostly concerned with their own perception of how they stand in society. And that drive to :”be someone” and “get somewhere” – well, when you think about it, you have already accomplished that. You are someone to your daughter, your boyfriend and the people who know and love you. You have reached an age where people respect you for what you have done and the the knowledge of life you possess. That, nobody can take away from you.
    I think that’s the problem with having the Asian parents we have. That if you aren’t a success (measured by your own view of what success is), if you haven’t made it accordingly, you are a failure. But when you think about it intelligently, you aren’t that at all. And it’s all that programming that we’ve been brainwashed into thinking which is why shrinks are so well-paid, lol!!

  6. Post

    it’s amazing how so many of us deal with these issues — over and over and over again. but it sounds like we’re on track. we’re thinking and talking about this stuff. we also have the ability to scrape ourselves off the floor during the self-doubt moments. that’s the entrepreneur in us, the adventurer that dares to forge ahead with an audacious personal dream. :)

  7. Well, Betty dear, I’ve got the trifecta goin’ on! (And stir in a nice big dollop of A.D.D., to boot.)

    – Fear of failure – because who doesn’t love for people to think you’re terrific at the things you do? (Not all of them realize I haven’t come close to fulfilling my creative potential, but those do, call me on it. A lot.)
    – Fear of success – because… look around at those who have really knocked it out of the ballpark, especially in creative fields. A happy personal life – whatever your definition of this – is often a casualty, and I’ve guarded mine ferociously. Now that I’m no longer a young babe, I’m less freaked about what dangers/temptations/wild-cards lurk if I really put myself out there, but still….
    – Fear of mediocrity – because what if this is really just as good as I am?What if my best efforts are… pedestrian? What, then, happens to your myth, that tantalizing thing that always lies ahead, ahead?

    I was a voracious reader as a child and always sought books that were slightly beyond my understanding. At 12 I read this novel “Marjorie Morningstar,” by Herman Wouk. (It was also made into a movie – a turkey, even with Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly in the leads.) A bit of background, in case this wasn’t part of your own coming-of-age: MM is a pretty, talented, “nice Jewish girl” from the Upper West Side who dreams earnestly of becoming an actress. Real name: Marjorie Morgenstern, but “Morningstar,” its translation – is the one she sees in lights. At a performing-arts camp, she meets composer Noel Airman, a cynical cad who pushes her to remove the shackles of her conventional upbringing (as well as her panties) and take her 1950s-style walk on the wild side. Marjorie’s passionate quest for self-actualization – turning her back on becoming a hausfrau, plunging into her craft, rebelling against her bewildered parents, figuring out that Noel’s a schmuck and a loser – goes on for well over 500 pages.

    Melodrama, to be sure (and a real pre-feminist, pre-Pill time-capsule), but the final chapter – as tightly written as the rest is bloated – blew my mind. (Spoiler alert,) Fast-forward several decades; Wally Wronken, a nerd from the summer camp, has gone on to become a celebrated Bway composer, but never stopped wondering what became of his dream girl, Marjorie. He manages to track her down and goes out to her Long Island home for a visit. She’s 50-something Marjorie Schwartz, a doctor’s wife – and if memory serves me, a grandmother. She’s attractive and gracious, seemingly content – lovely home, lovely family, lovely life – and he is stunned that she doesn’t appear to even REMEMBER who she once was, or how he and the others saw her. Says Wally to himself, after they say goodbye: “The only remarkable thing about Mrs. Schwartz is that she ever hoped to be remarkable – that she ever dreamed of being Marjorie Morningstar.”

    Instantly… those words burned themselves into my consciousness, for a lifetime – in the way that certain sentences, song lyrics, poems, prayers of supplication, do; I believe that I literally cried myself to sleep over them for WEEKS. And if I really let them sink in, they’re as big a punch in the stomach today as they were in 1963. Maybe bigger. Because, like you say, Betty – at 50-something (and I’ve got some years on you, too) it’s kind of now or never…

    And yet. In the larger scheme of things, to even dwell on this, in a tumultuous world, is a mark of privilege. And mostly, I don’t… for I am truly grateful. For being healthy (for this moment), for being surrounded by great family and friends whose love is palpable, for having a roof over my head, for living in freedom, for the modest successes/contributions I HAVE made. Yes, being a daughter of Holocaust survivors’ has definitely made me more fearful, and given me a greater sense of vulnerability than a healthy adult should possess (especially when it comes to the safety of my children). But I’ve grown past blaming this for my shortcomings, because it is also the wellspring of my greatest strengths: being ever-mindful of “the now,” able to exult in all sorts of human connection, and hungry to live every damn thing, every damn minute.

    Eek, sorry for the ramble, and all these dashes and ellipses; serves you right, for tossing out that great birthday post! Mine’s next week, sooo… thinkin’ about all this stuff too, I guess…

  8. Post

    oh viv, thanks for reminding us that we are so privileged. and thanks also for sharing about mrs. schwartz. sounds like she’s the woman that many of our immigrant parents wanted us gals to become — bleh. it also sounds like a lot of us are struggling to avoid turning into mrs. schwartz! meantime, you have succeeded big time in achieving your dreams as an author, teacher, wife, mom, friend — and wild woman.

  9. “birthday morning visit with the shrink”… oh, my how decadent! “I haven’t accomplished enough with my life. How am I ever going to amount to anything? What if I die a nobody? I’m ashamed of my whining when there’s true suffering in the world” – you and me both, sister! I still don’t know why we don’t live to be 300! There is never enough time to do everything we want. It’s the burden we carry as humans. I’ve been told it is a blessing to be so interested in life. So excited and passionate. Sometimes it feels like a curse. But, I know some people that do nothing with their time. Watch a lot of TV. If we could just negotiate to get some of their “extra” time!

    Go forth! And kick some butt!

    PS – Happy Birthday! You’re how old? You look so fantastic. I never would have guessed! I hope to look that great! (I’m at the age now where I tell people I’m 85! Look how great I look for 85! ha! :)

  10. Post
  11. Betty, through the years, I’ve come to see even more layers to the “Marjorie vs. Mrs. Schwartz” dichotomy (#22). Devastated as I was by Wally’s stinging judgment, who’s to say it wasn’t unfair, rooted in his own stereotypes and prejudices? He’d only had a brief, superficial encounter with Mrs. Schwartz; he didn’t KNOW her – her inner life, her creative outlets, her quiet contributions to community, her unheralded achievements as “best supporting” mother, life-partner, friend. Would her life necessarily had more worth, would she have done more measurable good in the world, as the celebrated Marjorie Morningstar? Sure, more accolades, more notoriety, more glamour – but deeper happiness, or a more meaningful legacy? I don’t think the answer’s a slam-dunk. (And for the record, I’d be puttin’ the same question out there, whether we were talking about a Marjorie, or a Manny.)

    Anyhoo… thanks for the kind words, and again, for a great post.

    1. Post

      vivien, we are on the same wave length. i’ve been vacuuming the house and thinking about mrs. schwartz. took a break just now to check email and….here you are! my thought: who is to say mrs. schwartz had a lesser life? you’re right! and quite frankly, i envy the steadiness and security of her life. do we really have to choose?

  12. What a great post. Fear fear fear. I had thought that by 43, I’d be over fear. But no no no. My mom is not afraid of anything and it makes me nuts. She had me when she was 45 and in 1968 that was unusual. A friend of hers tried to freak her out by saying things like “What if your baby is born with two heads?” She’d say, “I’ll knit her two hats.” Nah. Not me, if I got pregnant now I’d just freak out, start shrieking and run tight circles in my living room.

    In fact, I am posting now because I am doing a painting that is scaring me to pieces.

  13. Post

    i love this story about your mom. what she did was insane for 1968. and i totally relate because my mom had me when she was 39 — which was insane in 1956. we are the daughters of brave women! that’s worth a lot. and i’ll bet that painting turned out really special. :)

  14. thanks for the inspiring post. i’m scared too. i am quitting my job. i just spent almost 2 years in severe depression and tried to kill myself. i lost friends in the process. now i’m starting my social contact a bit more and it hurts me that i’m not the sociable person i used to be, or confident and radiant. but i’m rediscovering myself, and trying to listen to my body and my heart, find my passions within. i’m scared of the new life i will lead. i’m happy my fiance is with me, and so’s my dog. but oh that fear is inside. and it’s encouraging to know i’m not the only one – and that with fear, new opportunities come. finding my “entrepreneurial” spirit :)

  15. I’m glad that you were able to come to terms with your Fear(s).
    Fear is a cold, prickly emotion. Often so hard to embrace. In the times you really needed it, you just give it a nod and a word of thanks (and then do the ‘fish dance’ later). The part about dying in obscurity reminded me of the story I recently learned about Eileen Nearne (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20101028/eu-britain-wartime-heroine)
    There are so many times that fear has kept me alive. Yet I just can’t reach out it most of the time. I find myself at mid-life as well. In the same terrible job market and even wondering if I will ever work again.

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