By Andrea Aron-Schiavone
The advice my mom gave to my sister and me when we were younger reverberates in my consciousness, as only a mother’s words can: “Acknowledge what scares you, and do it anyway.” My younger sister brought these words to life at 3 years old, when despite her nervousness before a performance, she reassured our mom that she didn’t have to wait backstage like many other parents of first-time performers. These words hung in the night air of a rambling walk around campus, letting the terror roll through me as I finally told a friend I had feelings for him that had been building for months (I was more of a late bloomer). These words have served as a gentle reminder that often, doing what scares us pushes us towards embracing vulnerability and realizing growth that leads to a deeper self-awareness.
Even though I would like to say I wholeheartedly live by this mantra, that would be a lie. Unlike my sister who constantly rises to challenges with an inspiring amount of grace and resilience, I am definitely not as brave. I don’t even put clothes in the dryer out of fear that they will shrink.
I shy away from unfamiliar experiences, from new beginnings, from speaking my mind at the risk of being disliked. I shrink from difficult conversations. I become very cozy shrouded in my comfort zone, avoiding what I fear rather than facing it.
One of the most pervasive fears I had and noticed in others during my time in college was a fear of the future and the uncertainty associated with it. Instead of doing things because they aligned with what we valued, it seemed that sometimes, my peers and I did things out of a fear of failure. We strove to get good grades because if we didn’t, we feared disappointing our parents or ourselves. If we didn’t participate (or have leadership roles) in 7.5 clubs or organizations, we wouldn’t have the well-rounded resumes we needed to get that prestigious summer internship. If we didn’t overextend ourselves, we feared that people would find us uninteresting or unimportant. I think we deeply feared not being admired in the eyes of people who inspired us and of feeling that we truly didn’t belong in a school full of “overachievers.” Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking fears was being afraid of not being worthy enough for ourselves—for our own love and belief we were enough. And so, instead of doing what we loved simply because it made us feel alive, many things seemed to have this fear-avoiding purpose. We were not truly fulfilled, but instead, were running on empty: empty of rest, empty of inner peace, empty of self-love.
Several weeks ago, I was walking around my parents’ house, barefoot as usual. I had wandered into the family room when I stepped on something sharp. As I pulled out the slender, sharp object, it ominously reminded me that earlier, I had noticed a wasp flying around our house that I did not want to step on. So, taking preventative measures, I began to shove my feet into my sneakers when again, I was accosted by something sharp. As I rapidly withdrew my foot, I only laughed through the intense pain of the greater irony: Of all places, the wasp had flown into my shoe. Trying to avoid what I feared didn’t work; I wound up getting stung anyway.
Leading with your values in a society that encourages us to be afraid is one of the bravest things we can do, because what you fear may still happen, no matter how hard you try to avoid it. The future arrives; the unpredictability and the confusion all find you. I have been trying to un-learn the fear-based myths about worthiness and fulfillment I had been steeped in for the past four years—myths I very much subscribed to: that feeling fulfilled can only happen if you are overextended, frenzied, going a million miles an hour. That being “too busy” (even doing things you love) is somehow a heroic and admirable excuse for not practicing self-care. That you can only be interesting and inspiring and worthy of admiration if you are spread too thin.
I have been trying to remember that the quantity of things you are doing is not directly correlated with your worthiness as a human being, and that you can still be passionately involved without being stretched too thin. During my sophomore year, one of my wise, upperclassmen friends told me that she deeply admired people who poured their time and energy and love in two or three organizations, as opposed to those who tried to give themselves fully to a plethora of activities. Maybe I have just arrived at this conclusion to make myself feel better, but I would like to believe that people’s worthiness isn’t contingent on their “doing” the most things (even if they are meaningful), as much as who they are more wholly—the way they care about others, their souls, the way they live their values, their caring, the love they give.
From the outside looking in on the pressure-cooker of college, I see these myths I was blinded to while in the eye of the storm; a storm I loved and treasured, but an intense time nonetheless. I see my younger friends, some of the brightest, most fiercely burning souls I know, feeling unworthy, burned out, and heartbreakingly hard on themselves. You are so much more than your leadership positions. You are so much more than a sum of your qualifications. You deserve to feel peace and calm and to take care of yourself and simply “be.” You are worthy even if you aren’t in perpetual motion of “doing.” And if in the stillness you realize some darker parts of yourself, it’s OK to seek some professional support to help you feel at peace and happy. People can and will admire you and respect you aside from what you are involved in. Your story matters. Your soul and your thoughts and your mind are valuable in their own right.
The world is and always will be an uncertain place with many things to fear. The things you fear will inevitably still find you. But in the profound words of Hemingway, “The world breaks everyone, but afterwards, many are strong in the broken places.” And when we are confronted with our fears, it is a dedication to exemplifying what we value that will give us resilience and integrity and the strength to carry on.
And what you value most may be different from your friends—and one of the difficult things I have learned is that it’s OK if people I love value different things than I do: No one is more “right.” I try to tell myself that no person whose life is governed by their values could ever be considered a failure. And as Mark Twain said, “A fear of death follows from a fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” I don’t want to be afraid of living anymore.
After being stung, my foot was a little red and swollen for a bit, and I was in some pain. But I still walked around my kitchen (barefoot). I still attempted to bake brownies, and then made a huge mess and realized the brownie mix had expired and was too scared to mail them to a friend. I laughed as my sister and I exchanged texts about my metaphorical mishap.
We can strive to embrace the pain and be humbled by this vulnerability we all share. We can face the sting by striving for grace and humility. And sometimes, we may even be able to laugh in spite of it.
Andrea (Drea) Aron-Schiavone is a recent (in denial) alum of The College of William & Mary who is attempting to navigate the infamous “real world.” She is inspired by the resilience and genuine hearts of little humans, and hopes to pursue a future as a social worker, working with children who have survived trauma and abuse. Some of her favorite things include her family, handwritten letters, guacamole, Ed Sheeran, long drives with friends, and sending text messages that are way too long.