Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

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)

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Awesome. I love this.

    Sometimes to realize what we can become means we have to lose something important to us. It helps us gain perspective.

    I love your story. It’s proof that no trial is permanent, and that if we try to learn from our experiences, we can constantly improve ourselves.

    • Thanks, Bags. I think one of life’s great lessons is that in order to gain something, you have to lose something.

  • Great post, Jeff.   I lived in fear growing up too. I was shy and always felt uncomfortably stuck in the middle.  I never fit in any groups.  My mom died from breast cancer when I was a teenager.  I have blogged on many occasions how her death has actually taught me so much.  It’s always a reminder to me how God can use tragedy and bring something positive out of it. 

    • Thanks for the comment, Eileen. Sorry for your early loss. It’s not right, and it’s not ideal, but good can come from it. Appreciate your sharing your story.

  • Inspiring story Jeff. Thanks for sharing it.

    I too was locked up by fear. I suppose it was only through dying to myself in Christ that I really began to see some growth in this area.

    Dave

  • Thanks for sharing Jeff — I have not encountered death a whole lot, but my best friends dad died when I was in the 6th grade.  I don’t know exactly how it has brought life to me, because I can only see how my friend grew up fratherless and is now in a terrible path of life. I guess the Lord has some redemption ahead of this situation. 

    • Thanks, Darrell. As Forrest Gump says, “Death is a part of life, [but] I wish it wasn’t.”

      • Or like Tim McGraw said — live like you were dying. (just wanted to throw in that cheese for the heck of it)

  • Nice piece.  Thanks for sharing.

  • Al Pittampalli

    Really authentic, and sincere post, Jeff.  Inspiring.

  • Beautiful essay, Jeff.  I’m still pretty ashamed of how much every trivial thing seemed like the end of the world to us all back then.  I think that we’d been so far removed from tragedy that Doug’s death shocked a lot of us awake.

    • Wow. Well said, Justin. I think you’re absolutely right. Thanks for your kind words, Justin.

  • Jeff, that was a profoundly candid essay that touched me – thanks for being so transparent! In a literal sense, both my parents died young in life and I’ve learned a lot from death. Here’s a post I wrote regarding the eulogy I delivered at my father’s funeral at the urging of our pastor – in the hopes of touching some lives.  Thanks for the opportunity to share it.

    https://torconsblog.blogspot.com/2010/09/eulogy-i-gave-for-my-dad.html

  • For me, it was my Dad’s fight with cancer and death that really brought life into focus for me. His life and death have left a profound impact on me. God has really used both to change the shape of my heart.

    • Wow. That’s a great example, Andy. Thanks for sharing, man!

  • My 3 1/2 month old nephew died when I was 21.  I shut down.  I refused to put much effort into life again.  It took about 5 or 6 years for me to “wake up.”  I’d been walking around virtually nonexistent for so long that these last few years I’ve able to go about rediscovering myself, which is an awesome thing, because I’m not who I was.  And I’m waking up to the fact that there are no limits on who I am and who I can become.

    His death caused great pain that I refused to feel for so long, but now I’m thankful for every feeling, whether good or bad, because it means that I’m alive and not just alive, but I’m living.

    • Thank you for sharing, Julie. I’m sorry for your loss.

  • Anonymous

    “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” (T.S. Eliot – of course)  Thanks for sharing this today, Jeff.

  • Anonymous

    Death has definitely taught me to learn how to live more fully, and not only that, but for my life to make a difference.

    You touched on the subject of what is now one of my favorite movies. I’m always recommending it. It’s called “Departures”. It is a Japanese film and won a Best Foreign Film Oscar. It is the most beautiful, moving, inspiring portrayal I have ever seen of death and every time I see it, it makes me appreciate life all the more.

    Great post, I loved the writing.

  • bethanyplanton

    I love the essay format. Thanks for sharing. 

    • Thanks, Bethany. Appreciate the encouragement.

  • Ernie

    You’re completely right – the fact that death really can bring life is a wonderful paradox. When I think about death I often think about the death of my old, sinful self. Wow…I resisted this death for so long. And looking back I think I did so because I figured I could find life another way. “Maybe if I just ignored or misdirected…then I could find life.” But that never worked. 

    Thanks for sharing your story, Jeff. It has energized my heart today.

    • Thanks, Ernie. We’re all looking for ways to work around this. We want to know: “How can I avoid pain?” The truth is that there is no other way. The way to redemption is thru death. The cross is the means to the resurrection.

  • Jenni Keller

    Thanks for sharing Jeff…I think that day changed all of us in big or small ways…

  • Jeff,

    Beautifully written piece!

    I do not have any personal stories to add but my brother and his wife got together as a result of getting in contact on the event of her father’s death. It was an ending and a beginning all in one.

    Thank you for putting that out there.

    Peter

    • Thanks, Peter. The stories that are coming in response to this are truly amazing!

  • Marissa June Goins

    Hey, you may have got a life, but it made your little sister sad! Excellent blog, Jeff. You’re really talented, but you already know that.  🙂

  • Evanblackerby

    This is beautiful, Jeff. I lived this story, too. Different place and time, but I lived it. Here’s to becoming alive……

  • this is a great story 🙂

  • I really liked this. Not just because of its message of embracing life, but also its message of simple pleasures and small actions that add up. Often blogs like these lead to pronouncements like “And that’s when I became determined to summit Kilimanjaro!” Which people like me read and think “But I don’t want to summit Kilimanjaro. In fact, I think that would be worse than my current misery.” 

    This was different. This was about embracing life but also being yourself –  a rare message.

  • Anonymous

    Oh how I relate so well to this post, more than you know. 2 Timothy is the verse I stand on. “For God has not given me a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind.” 

    I used to let fear consume me. Now I let God consume me. 

  • Wow! Thanks Jeff.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you Jeff, this is a very home hitting piece. We all miss Doug. Atop his personality, he did one thing that at the time no one else could, he made us all look as deep as we went as people and made us all look at ourselves and others in a different light. His passing bridged the gaps in that small class and brought us all together. He taught us all that none were immortal. I guess I never even thought about it like that until I read this essay, we were all so young. Again, beautiful essay Jeff, I look forward to reading more from you.

    P.S.Remember that time I came over to play guitar with you, I never came back because I thought you were too good for me to jam with and that I was a guitar bore. Hahaha, those were the days. Maybe sometime you and I can get together, I’ll bring my banjo, you bring your guitar. We can all sing.

  • frankfort12

    Hi Jeff,
    I spent a little time reading your posts this evening. This is my first time visiting your blog.  Thank you for sharing this wonderful essay. It seems that lately every place that I go the same message keeps coming through “in order to gain something you’ve got to be willing to lose something.” I’m not sure exactly where that continued theme is going to lead me but this is one more confirmation.
    My husband and I both had near death experiences (I actually was “brought back”) within two weeks of each other. They were totally unrelated but obviously deeply impacted us.
    I’m not afraid to die, but some days I’m afraid that I won’t really LIVE.
    So, it appears that God is speaking to me about how to release some things so that I can do just that. Thanks for allowing Him to use you in the process.

  • Qcitimothy Perry

    Jeff,
    Thanks for sharing your story.  My son died in a workplace accident at the age of 29. Chris was a very special young man. His sudden passing has left an empty space in our family. We are comforted by the knowledge that he is in Heaven, but at the same time, we miss him here.

    What Chris’ passing made clear to me is that life is short and that each day must be lived without any residue of regret. I show love to my family more frequently, I try to do all the things that I want to do/turn dreams into reality, I avoid yeilding to temptations of immediate gratification that might bring me/those I love sadness tomorrow, I give thanks to God for each day he gives, and I try to prepare myself to leave this world when called or say goodbye to those close to me when they are called.

    Again, thanks for sharing your perspectives.  Keep up the good work. God bless.

  • Lia London

    Thank you, Jeff, for sharing this and for showing that meaningful change requires a catalyst.  My story of learning through the death of another can be found here: 
    https://lialondon.net/about-lia-london/what-i-learned-from-a-dead-woman/  

    It was an elderly woman at my church, and her death (and in particular, funeral) changed my whole life goal.

  • Amazing write-up! This could aid plenty of people find out more about this particular issue. Are you keen to integrate video clips coupled with these? It would absolutely help out. Your conclusion was spot on and thanks to you; I probably won’t have to describe everything to my pals. I can simply direct them here!

  • MindPepper

    Don’t get me started on this subject, dear Jeff. 

    I was writing my first ‘real story’ here as a writer. Because me too, I am writer. So I decided to finish it first in Word, and then I will post it here and also on my website. Actually, I am doing this now because you have inspired me (within a week; impossible almost), to see writing as something I have to take more seriously. 

    Will be back. LOVE your inspiration. Loved this piece of art.