What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Fear has power over me. Admitting that is admitting weakness. But not admitting it is lying because if you’re alive, you’re afraid. Fear keeps us out of dangerous situations, and as boring as that may sound, in my opinion you can’t become anything if you’re not first alive. So hello, you yellow bellied ‘fraidy cat!

My brain tells me that the things I fear will destroy me. I don’t know about destroy, but they will make me feel bad, that’s for sure. Nobody wants to feel bad because once you feel bad you have to put in work to feel good again and most of us don’t prioritize that kind of work. My to-do list is always assignments and deadlines and all the output I must produce to stay on the Track to Success. Anything else goes to the bottom of the list, and it stays there. So let us avoid adding that extra work on altogether. Let us avoid feeling bad. Let us do what is required, and do it correctly. Let us earn 4.0s and show them off. Let us never struggle and let us never fail. It feels good! Let us please everyone we meet and let us never have an original thought (except those that must be fabricated to impress a professor or colleague or friend). Let us let our fears rule us.

But then how will we grow?

In grade school, I was bad at sports. That’s what I thought because that’s how it had been all my life. I was always the worst player on the soccer team, always the last to be picked. So of course, everyone knew I was bad at sports. I dragged my feet through years of mandatory physical education and breathed a sigh of relief in grade ten when I finally got a choice. I had a week to decide, and the choices were: 1) Dance Class, 2) Weight Training, and 3) Regular old Phys. Ed.  At last! I could shirk out of ‘real’ gym class and just do some dancing with my friends! Then I surprised myself.  I began having fleeting curiosity about that weight training class. Perhaps it would make me better. Perhaps I would even enjoy it.  But I only ever let myself entertain the thought fleetingly, and at the end of the week I made an easy decision against it. Only the jocks from the football team took that class. I didn’t belong there. What would they think? What would they say? I stayed in my place.

In high school, I was bad at math. Whenever I asked a question in class it was a dumb question, and whenever I did a problem on the board, it was wrong. So of course, everyone knew I was bad at math. And so that’s what I told myself. I was bad at math. That’s how things were and I couldn’t change it so best to just do what the other kids who are bad at math do. It meant I didn’t hang out with the other kids who were acing advanced mathematics, who excitedly discussed theories on physics and probability and challenged each other with logic problems in the lunch break, even though I wanted to. And when all those kids went on to take AP Computer Science, I didn’t. I didn’t belong there, so I stayed in my place. What would they think? What would they say?

At every stage of my life, I wanted to try new things, but my new things didn’t fit the version of me that was acceptable. I was afraid. Would I be ‘allowed’ to do the kinds of things that girls like me don’t do?

People who know me now would read the last few paragraphs and find it at least a little but ironic, because even if they don’t know me well, they know of two specific things I do with almost obsessive interest. The first is that I’m always on my way to the gym for weight training. And the second is that I study Computer Science.

In college, I can be a tomboy. I am a part of classes and friend circles that are overrun with male students and I am constantly accosted with statements that accuse me of ‘acting like a guy’. Like many of my colleagues, I display a crude sense of humor, sharp sarcastic wit, and a jaded worldview. It covers the entire trope of University Computer Science Student, and it is a lie.  Not a complete lie, but not a complete truth either.

I’ll laugh with the others as they make light of heavy, controversial topics, and even throw in a few jokes in myself. None of them need to know I’m a feminist. I’ll join in on the intermittent roasts of Humanities students and nod approvingly as some self-obsessed physical sciences specialist goes off on a tirade about the Useless Arts Degree. None of them need to know about the artist in me, about how I sometimes miss the classes that inspired me to think and write about the world and myself.  What will they think? What will they say? Just keep your head down, get the grades, stay on the Track to Success.

I fear judgement, I fear not belonging, I fear being wrong, and I fear not being enough. I’m afraid that if I don’t fit a stereotype, if I don’t behave the way people expect me to behave, then Something Bad will happen. As a computer science student who is a girl and as an artist who is studying STEM and as a collection of contradictions that make me who I am, I don’t fit in, and I’m afraid I am alone. It’s irrational, but it’s on my mind every day. The good part is that I do things that scare me anyways, and I stay afraid.

So, what would I do if I wasn’t afraid? I would be comfortable, I would fit in, but I would do so much less. I would be hiding the best parts of me.

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