When I was about eight years old, my dad gave a speech—one that would be referenced many times throughout my childhood—to one of my second cousins about the nature of fear. My cousin Sterling stood at the top of a cliff on Lake Powell, terrified to jump, but wanting desperately to be considered as brave as those of us who had already made the 50-foot leap. In his pep talk, my dad told my cousin that fear is only a paper dragon.
He expanded by saying that fear makes every situation appear far more daunting than it actually is; when you first glance at your fear, it resembles a deathly beast with long teeth and fire streaming from its mouth. But when you look closely, when you stare your fear in the eyes and examine its properties, it’s nothing but a flimsy piece of paper masquerading as a dragon.
I jumped off the cliff before my dad could give me this speech about fear (though I could have really used it in that moment), but the words have been ingrained in my mind ever since. I’ve used the old “fear is a paper dragon” mantra to propel me through many fearful situations in my life: skydiving, running at the cross-country state championships in high school, speaking at my college graduation, moving to France, initiating difficult conversations with people I love.
Though I’ve always been aware of this concept, it tends to sit quietly in the back of my mind and fade out of importance until I’m ready to embrace its wisdom and call out my fears by name. It wasn’t until recently that I felt inclined to revisit the emotions surrounding fear and to apply the paper dragon theory to situations outside of cliff jumping or other adventure sports. Like my career path, for example.
It’s unnerving for me to admit that what I want to do at the moment (to write full-time about travel and lifestyle among other things) lies far outside a conventional 9-5 office job. It scares me to think about potentially squandering solid work opportunities in favor of dedicating myself to a pursuit that may not instantly pay off (literally and figuratively). But I’m also afraid to say yes to a job prospect that doesn’t thrill me out of fear that I’m not talented or experienced enough to get one that does.
It’s in these moments of hesitation and heavy reflection that I turn to groupings of words for solace and inspiration. I know plenty of pleasing little quotes that relate fear to various frightening animals, real or imaginary (like this fantastic German proverb: Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is).
But the quotes, while seemingly oversimplified on the surface, perfectly address fear’s most dangerous skill: it transforms ordinary situations and ideas into things they are not. Fear enhances a situation’s negative qualities and gives that situation momentum and freedom to grow bigger and wilder than what we can manage.
To really see and understand a predicament exactly as it exists, we need to examine it stripped of the distortions our fears add to it. We need to pick apart a fearful thought, pinpoint its source, and ask ourselves why we are afraid.
For me, this means considering the possibility of pursuing my writing professionally without needing to justify my choices to everyone around me. This means recognizing the unknown aspects and challenges of the work, but not allowing my fears to twist these challenges into ones I think I can’t handle. It means asking myself why I would ever fear something I want so much.
It means walking right up to that paper dragon, pushing it over with a flick of my finger, and wondering why it ever scared me to begin with.
I’d love to know: what are you afraid of and how do you deal?