How Death Taught Me to Overcome Fear & Really Live

We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other. Our age yields no great and perfect persons. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

I used to spend every day in fear.

I would get out of bed, brush my teeth, eat my cereal, and go to school afraid. Every single day. Absolutely petrified.

Winter wasteland
Photo credit: Flickr (Creative Commons)

I would encounter the girl I liked and avoid her. During lunch, I would try to sneak past a group of upperclassmen who would subject me to a cruel game of “human pinball” just outside the cafeteria.

I would ride home on the bus, trying to escape the clutches of anyone who would make fun of me or put gum in my hair (both of which happened far more than I would care to admit).

Around 4:30 p.m., I would complain to my mom that nobody called or wanted to hang out with me. I would pop in my VHS of Fight Club and feel sorry for myself as I fell asleep with a can of generic soda in my hand.

“Why don’t you call someone, Jeff?” my mom would ask. “Stop complaining, and change your situation.” My mom wasn’t the most gentle person. “Why don’t you be the one that everyone wants to hang out with?”

I didn’t listen to her.

At least, not until Doug died.

Tragedy leads to change

My classmate Doug had a bad heart. You would never have known it, though. He was exuberant about life, in good shape and optimistic about the future.

Despite the fact that he could only play golf (due to his condition), he was a respected member of the athletic community at our high school. In fact, he was often referred to as the “Sixth Man” of the basketball team, because he was at every game, cheering his guts out.

Then, one day, he collapsed on the gymnasium floor. Before the 3:09 buzzer rang, there was a somber announcement over the monitor system, announcing his untimely and unfair death.

And then, the buzzer rang. We all sat at our desks, completely frozen.

We gathered in the gym and spent the remaining hours of the day sitting on the bleachers, letting the news sink in. Some cried. Others yelled. Others shrugged.

I didn’t know what to do. I don’t remember crying. I just remember not feeling anything.

That weekend, I called up a couple of friends, and we all agreed that we needed to get out of our houses and do something. “Let’s all go bowling,” somebody suggested.

So we started bowling…

This turned into a regular occurrence. Sometimes two to three times a week, we would drive 15 miles to the nearest recreational center, and bowl a couple of games.

We didn’t talk about Doug, although we were all thinking about him. Instead, we would enjoy each other’s company, trying to keep our minds busy.

We ate nachos, told sophomoric jokes, and treated this game of nine-pound balls and wooden pins far too seriously. And slowly — somewhat to my surprise — we began to heal.

Pretty soon, I stopped wondering what I was going to do every night. Eventually, people just started calling me, asking me what we would be doing this coming weekend.

“I don’t know… a movie, I guess?”
“Great, we’ll be there at 7. See you soon!”

At times, it was a burden. What was I — our group’s personal party planning committee? But even that thought — “our group” — was something new and exciting to me. I had a group. I belonged.

And I was never bored on a weekend ever again.

I started to change in other ways. I went for jogs to try to lose my adolescent chubbiness. I was too ashamed to run during the day. So, I began to do it late at night. After dark. When no one could see me.

And in so many ways, I became to change, subtly and secretly, from the inside out.

I began to live and not just exist

I grew more confident in who I was — not just because of what I looked like, but because of what I had done, what I could do, and how trustworthy I had become.

I ended up getting my first date that year, then a girlfriend. And then my first break-up. I began to learn to appreciate the ebb and flow of life, learning to treasure it all as a gift.

I went off to college and met some of my best lifelong friends… and eventually my wife.

I learned to not be afraid of being left out or getting picked on. The only fear I had was losing this life that I had begun to discover — this life to the full.

All because of death. Or perhaps, in spite of it.

Death can bring life

It’s a wonderful paradox, isn’t it?  That the end of something can cause the beginning of something else?

I don’t need to understand it to embrace it, and neither do you.

How has death brought about an abundance of life for you? Feel free to respond in the comments or with your own story.

This post was prompted by a 30-day writing challenge called #Trust30.

*Photo credit: H Dragon (Creative Commons)