A wonderful friend invited me to see a play with her at Ontario Canada’s Stratford Festival.
So I hopped on the Via Rail train from Union Station in Toronto and headed to the picturesque town of Stratford, just two hours away.
When we took our seats at the Avon Theatre and the characters from Private Lives set the play in motion, I realized how the genius of British playwright, Noel Coward’s play fit perfectly with this week’s deep dive into fear.
You see I’m afraid of many things, many which have held me back in life. But not in the usual way most of us think about fear. For example, I used to think I was afraid of disappointing others so many of the choices I made in life were based on what would make them happy. But in truth, I had settled comfortably into fear.
To those who knew me, I was confident. I played every sport in school and excelled academically. I earned several degrees and fell into a blissfully happy life.
And, I was happy. I still am.
But I realize now, with age and experience, that underneath all of this good fortune and my happy life was that I was too afraid to fail – so I didn’t.
About now you may be thinking what kind of a lucky prick complains about a thing like that – about fear of failure and the luck that it brought? Okay, you have a point. Obviously fear motivated me enough to succeed but I also know it stopped me from trying tons of things and taking chances. What opportunities and experiences did I miss because the risk was too great and outside of my comfort zone?
We can only guess, but can you imagine Mohammed Ali’s life had never stepped into a boxing ring or risked losing a fight? Likewise, what if Serena Williams had walked away from tennis after winning her first Grand Slam title? When she publicly admitted suffering from post-partum depression after giving birth to her daughter Olympia, her shocking news was all-the-more powerful because she has won 23 Grand Slam titles.
Fear challenges us to do things we might never do – it paralyzes or propels us to greatness. By playing it safe in life and running from fear, we deny ourselves opportunities and experiences that may lift us and help us to grow in excitingly new and positive ways.
Going back to the beginning of this story and our brave Noel Coward, we meet a prolific playwright who never attended university but was comfortable enough to mingle with British high society. It helped that Coward filled his life with invention and joyful abandon. When he wrote in the 1920s and 30s, he called into question institutions and many of our fundamental beliefs.
We see this in Private Lives as Amanda Prynne (played by Lucy Peacock) and Elyot Chase (Geraint Wyn Davies) destroy the social conventions around marriage and civility. For every characters, fear comes and goes – seemingly without direction or logic when a divorced couple meet while honeymooning with their second spouse.
No one has identifiable jobs or a defined purpose in life, except that both Amanda and Elyot realize they are still crazy in love and still crazy mad at each other. Both fear a conventional life while doubting nothing and everything so silly dialogue ensues throughout the play. It is about nonsensical things and serious subjects, both and all of which seem completely irrelevant.
In this way, Coward challenges more than the institutions that hold us hostage in his eyes. Coward dismisses fear itself. Coward established a reputation as an artist for whom there were no rules. He wrote anything but traditional plays and created characters that couldn’t live with or without each other.
This seeming frivolity forced a change in my train of thought and the role of fear. Instead of seeing it as something to beat by forging past fear – especially if it brings a new job, a new insight or something as simple as a proud moment – we see it differently. Fear is a train of thought that brings new fears and new choices that replace the old ones.
It’s easier to accept fear when we celebrate our freedom and roll with uncertainty. So go ahead and beat it when you want to or need to, and accept that it will always be there for you to do what you will with it.
Written on a wall in his house in Jamaica, Noel Coward wrote his last poem entitled When I Have Fears. In it he says,
When I have fears, as Keats had fears,
Of the moment I’ll cease to be
I console myself with vanished years
Remembered laughter, remembered tears,
And the peace of the changing sea.