May 10, 2020

On the Other Side of Fear Lies Freedom

Post by 
Heather Gallagher

On the Other Side of Fear Lies Freedom

How many times have you thought about doing something bold, or even something just slightly outside of your comfort zone, and when the time came to do it, you chickened out?

How many times have you wanted to write a book, sing a song, color your hair, get a tattoo or otherwise express yourself, and then didn’t do it because you were afraid of what someone else might think? Or that it wasn’t what was ‘expected’ of you?

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I wasn’t born with colorful dreadlocks and a flare for creative expression. Nor was I one of those kids with a natural inclination to get up on a stage with a microphone and speak in front of hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of people, like this keynote I gave at ATECH last Halloween.

I was shy. In fact, I was dreadfully shy.

People who know me now are often surprised to learn that I was shy. So are the countless people who have come up to me and said things like “You’re such an inspiration. You’re so courageous. I was thinking about [expressing myself in such-n-such a way], but then I chickened out.”

Lately when this happens, I look them straight in the eye and I say, “That’s too bad, because on the other side of that is freedom. Beyond whatever fear held you back, once you push through that, and the next fear, and then make it a habit to push through all your fears and others expectations, you’ll find freedom.”

I used to chicken out. I used to watch other people who seemed super confident and stylish, or who were colorful and bold and expressive and creative, and I wished I could be like them. I had plenty of ideas, but didn’t know how to let them out. Or at least that was the case until I realized that the only difference between me and them, was that they actually did it. They didn’t chicken out.

An amazing feeling happens at the moment when you push through your fear. The first time you give a big talk at the office, or step out of your house with a small pink streak in your hair, or go to a party dressed as a giant bunny rabbit, or show your artwork in a public space, or sing your song to another person, or whatever your particular expression is. The hair on your skin stands up. Your whole body tingles as if injected with new energy. Admittedly this excitement may also come with some sweaty palms, but it’s also this undeniable feeling of being truly alive.

It’s taken me a lifetime of moments like that, often in incremental baby steps, and the occasional large leap, to grow from being a super shy wallflower-in-the-making into who I am today. Someone who is confident and creative, and who has grown so comfortable in my own radical self-expression that it has been my new normal for years, and apparently is an inspiration for many others.

Burning Man, both the event in Black Rock City and events created by the year-round global community which has sprung from it, are like graduate programs and intense study groups for experimenting with the art of self expression. Societal expectations are flipped upside down. Your neighbors aren’t going to ‘judge’ you for expressing yourself. In fact, they might raise an eyebrow and encourage you if you aren’t expressing yourself in some way. This is why it is one of the most popular events on the planet. It is also a powerfully transformative experience. At first some people might come for the party, but then they leave with a new lease on life. That is because Burners give you a safe place to discover and delight in your own freedom.

Part of the conversation at the ATECH Conference in Aruba last October was exploring how arts and culture can influence innovation and empower a creative society. Even though creative expression can start as a deeply personal experience, when combined with others either via collective repression or expression, the results can influence entire communities, countries and even the whole planet.

In this panel I was joined by fellow Burner and Enklu Lead Producer, Ganga Baird, and a few other creative leaders from the island, and we talk about using technology for transformative experiences, and how to stimulate the creative community on their beautiful desert island. (And in their special Aruban way, they also surprised me by singing me Happy Birthday!)

After successfully navigating lots of baby steps, you learn to embrace opportunities that let you practice pushing through your fears. Eventually it’s no longer about the rush of feeling alive as you cross over some threshold into the land of freedom. It’s that you realize that you are free, and you were free all along, and you just can’t imagine living any other way.

During these past several months, our human community has not been free, in fact we have been collectively facing the fears and challenges of covid-19. These are life-and-death fears, and fears about society, leadership, and the structures which have, or often have not, been in service to the greater good. This is one of the most powerful collective human transformation opportunities of a century.

Fears limiting our personal self expression and creativity may seem insignificant compared to current problems on a global scale, but global transformation starts with the individual. At this moment, each of us stands at the edge of a new life with a chance to make positive changes in ourselves and the world. Once each of us takes a courageous breath and steps across the threshold into our own freedom, only then can we truly adapt and rebuild a transformed global society together.

Hopefully we will take in all the possibilities with a fresh perspective. Hopefully we'll see that humans are more similar to each other than we are different. Hopefully we'll realize this is a chance to fix some things that were seriously broken. Hopefully we'll drop some of our petty dramas and grudges, and rejoice in the delight of being alive. Hopefully we'll express ourselves colorfully and create things of beauty together. Hopefully we will make decisions for the greater good. Hopefully we'll remember that we are free.

What will you do?

Who will you be?

What are you afraid of?