A Taxonomy of Fear

In my early years of ballet training, I developed a fear of falling. We would rehearse for months and months in anticipation of just a handful of performances, and as opening night approached, my fear grew stronger. There were many underlying reasons for my fear, and I could categorize them into neat little groups. There were the fears related to suffering—the worry that a fall would result in physical injuries, or at least, if it happened on stage, a great deal of shame. There were the fears related to failure and the sense that a fall was a sign of some shortcoming in my training, ability, or commitment. Above all, there was a gripping fear of the unknown. What would it feel like to fall, mid-flight, and what would happen afterwards?

Another dancer assured me that I had nothing to worry about and that my anxieties would disappear after my first fall. Of course, her confidence in the inevitability of falling terrified me even more, but in the end, she was right.

Eventually, my fear ballooned to the point where I would stand in the wings crushing rosin repeatedly with my shoes. I became certain that every floor was as slick as ice and that I would do best to ensure that my feet were practically glued to the floor. Of course, this was entirely counterproductive.

After one such rosin-crushing session, I rushed onto the stage with my fellow snowflakes for the frenzy that is the snow scene in the Nutcracker. We were running at top speed in cocentric circles, and before I knew it, I had landed flat on my face in a sea of tulle, dry ice, and fake snow.

Fortunately, my fears about falling onstage were proven wrong in an instant. It didn’t hurt (at least not until the adrenaline wore off), and no one seemed to notice. What happened next was simply that I popped back up immediately and kept running before I even had time to realize what had happened.

Sometimes we have the opportunity to face our fears, by will or by accident. We can climb mountains, hold snakes, speak to packed auditoriums, and pick ourselves up when we fall. These are opportunities for empowerment and for realizing our own potential. In other cases, however, we hope very much that our greatest fears will never play out in reality.

In the wake of public trauma and personal turning points, it seems appropriate to take inventory of our fears, to line them up in broad daylight and see them for what they really are.

Not all fears have the same weight or character. Some are rational, some irrational. Some are universal; others derive from individual experience. Sometimes we are most afraid of what we don’t know, and sometimes we are afraid of what we know too well.

Fear is a perfectly natural part of the human condition. I’ve had to remind myself of this whenever I’ve worried that my own fears were ridiculous or when I have allowed those fears to get in the way of joy. By bringing our fears to light and acknowledging them as a part of our shared experience, we may find opportunity for connection and give ourselves permission to live abundantly.