Graduation speakers annually promote a practice that is both illogical and unhealthy: they encourage graduates to be fearless. Their charge acts as a send-off to a life of undaunted world-changing, an admonition to be the next hero, the next Rosa Parks, Malala Yousafzai, or Neil Armstrong.
Sitting in fold-up chairs, graduates adjust their square hats as the speaker spreads a progression of heroes before them. Educated people that they are, the graduates are likely familiar with all the “greats,” the titans of accomplishment who climbed Everest, literally and metaphorically. These students’ entire lives have been a series of admonitions to be “fearless” like these heroes. That’s great; the lives of amazing people naturally inspire us to be bigger and better ourselves. But as our graduation speaker opens his mouth, he is just the latest in a long line of voices – children’s writers, museum curators, Discovery channel editors, and even Little League coaches – to give the wrong impression: there’s not really anything amazing about being fearless. It’s not that these heroes aren’t heroes; it’s just that they weren’t fearless.
What we often mean by “fearless” honestly involves much more fear than not. In fact, to be “fearless,” like we say the heroes of history were, requires a great deal of both emotional and physical experiences of fear.
To unnecessarily belabor the semantics, “fearlessness,” strictly speaking, is the result of a truly unfortunate mental illness (diagnosed as a disease called Urbach-Wiethe). This disease significantly alters, if not impairs, our experience of the world. In one case, the disease destroyed both parts of the patient’s amygdala, a small, almond shaped part of the brain that processes fear and inhibited her from any emotional response to threat. To my knowledge (which is scant), none of the above history book heroes experienced this disease, and thus, fearlessness was, for them, a physical impossibility. In fact, their amygdala’s intact, their experience of fear began like everyone’s does.
A brief moment to elaborate, if it’s not too much. In the human body, fear moves top-down, beginning in the brain and spreading to the extremities. Once you perceive a threat, your amygdala shoots out a series of hormones (no, not those kinds) that move you to a state of alertness. Next, these hormones create symptoms of your fear from head to toe. Your ears begin to pound. Blood flow to peripheral vessels is constricted, causing blood to gather in your cheeks, which makes you blush. After that, my palms and armpits get sweaty, and my muscles tense. This muscle tension pulls on hair follicles along my arms and legs, creating a line of goosebumps. Next, the great hero’s heart rate increases, and she starts breathing faster and faster. Finally, even our graduation speaker is experiencing a flurry of butterflies in his stomach, and it is possible (though not likely) that he wet himself before facing the podium. These physiological changes converge, and your consciousness to realizes the sensation of fear.
All those bodily processes, all those feelings of fear, are a reaction to perceived threat. Wikipedia says so. It’s helped the human race survive for a long time. The physiological and emotional rush seems automatic and inevitable, and this pokes some holes in our speaker’s “go be fearless” balloon. That’s ok, though, because what we want doesn’t have anything to do with fearlessness. What we want is bravery.
We see this in our legends. Something special happens when we hear the story of Desmond Doss at the Battle of Okinawa, the World War II medic who returned to danger again and again in order to save “just one more” comrade. It happens when we hear the story of the Martin Luther King Jr. family, who experienced a house bombing and yet continued non-violent activism. In these stories we meet individuals who faced the most primal fear: death. Every somatic and emotional response to threat undoubtedly racked their bodies, but on they plodded. That’s why, when we see these heroes on the silver screen, we walk out of the theater amped to take on the world. We don’t admire them because they lacked emotional and physiological responses to fear; we admire them because they experienced countless cortisol spikes and sweaty palms, and moved forward anyway. Turns out we might even admire the graduation speaker, who just might have been on the verge of vomiting but stepped up to the mic regardless.
In short – fearlessness won’t get you anywhere, and it’s not the goal anyway. What you want is action, and the capacity to take meaningful risk. If you want a low bar, pray for fearlessness and then you can do all the things that don’t scare you.
~ Jonathan Moore