This is What Fear Smells Like

Sometimes I wish my mother was more like Alexander the Great’s mother. His mom put his confidence above his mental health or the wellbeing of anyone in their kingdom. She told him he was a demigod and couldn’t possibly do wrong. I’m sure this is a great way to completely imbalance your kid and give them crippling social problems… but virtually everyone I know has crippling social problems anyway, so why not make it the fun ones.

My parents have always supported my choices, but it’s sort of a resigned support. They are not partners or advocates for anything I do: it just doesn’t make sense to them. Same thing for my sister’s big plans. So they tell us they are proud and wish us well on our crazy quests, and then we go off and do them.

I don’t really wish my Mom was any different. With all the broken homes and angry parents in the world, our little family came out alright. But I think we’re all of us handicapped in fearlessness. The level of anxiety and fear that people have in the 21st century does not correspond at all to the level of risk and pain that most of us face. We could use some Queen Olympia.

A certain level of fear is bred into us. The history of human development has been a shift toward more obedience, more settlement, more acceptance of authority. Biochemistry isn’t possible for nomads. All those centuries of sanctioning a settled, lawful lifestyle allowed us to make advances, but it comes with some debt to pay off.

Here’s what I thought I was afraid of. Starting two months ago I became terrified of my own Adventure. The whole plan began to seem overwhelming and completely crazy. I enjoyed being with my family and visiting longtime friends. I started to think I made a mistake.

I began to cling to my (temporary) settled lifestyle.

This always gets me. I have a soft spot for comfort and security. There are a lot of reasons I had a half-hearted marriage for three years, but it could all be summed up pretty well as “Drew really wanted to be married.” (I also blame the tequila, but still.) The reason I owned a house was similar.

So I always perceived a tension between my desire to adventure and my lust for security. That tension came to its boiling point in April. The reality of traveling through the Americas—danger, cost and discomfort—became my nightmare.

I did what I usually do. I dug in. I spent more and more time at home, reading, working and planning. I turned down options to go do fun and amazing things because I had to work harder to be as ready as possible.

Then I went on my kayaking trip. I didn’t want to go on the kayaking trip—sure I love Mitch, and I love the outdoors, but I had work to do! How could I give up a whole week and a couple hundred dollars when I had work to do?

Pretty easily.

A good policy I’ve learned: when you have an opportunity to do something unique, take it. So I went kayaking on Lake Superior. With someone I’d never met. And no money.


All the tension, fear and worry I’d been feeling melted away—not  just in the moment, as tends to happen on holiday, but completely. Even after returning home, and to this day, I feel a total calm about my impending journey.

Even though we’re bred to crave a settled, secure lifestyle, that is not who we evolved to be. From inside my little reliable box the Adventure was a dangerous, terrifying thing. It was easy to write it off and pull back from it. 8,000 years of Emperors told us to want houses, money and jobs. Traveling free spirits tend to get the stocks.

But when you explore, the horizon changes. Before the emperors were 500,000 years of walking wherever the hell you wanted to walk, of facing down predators with very little backup, of fucking and sleeping in the sun. That’s all we really want, and it’s the one thing Amazon can’t sell you.

Security makes us afraid. You can only fear what’s outside if you’re inside.

The whole time I was tense and afraid, I thought it was because of my Adventure. But it wasn’t. It was lack of adventure—it was four walls and a refrigerator that gave me something to fear.

What do you fear?


46 thoughts on “This is What Fear Smells Like

  1. Wow – such an interesting look at fear. When I was right out of college, adventure always seemed to win out, but as I get older I find myself craving the security & a lot of times the security wins out. And you are right, it isn’t the adventure that causes me to fear, it is the four walls and it’s probably not the age thing either, it’s probably just that with age comes more stuff and more perceived security.

    Loved reading such a thoughtful essay on fear. Wish you tons of adventure! Sounds like you have a lot in store.

    • Thank you Kate. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you’re new here? Welcome to Rogue Priest! I’d love to hear about some of your adventures – and how you balance the need for adventure with your present-day lifestyle.

      • Hi Drew – I am new here so thanks for the welcome. I’m not sure I’ve figured out how to balance the need for adventure with my present day lifestyle. Honestly I think I am most fully happy when I am immersed in adventures. Still figuring it all out :)

  2. ‎”when you have an opportunity to do something unique, take it.”

    “But when you explore, the horizon changes. ”

    “Security makes us afraid. You can only fear what’s outside if you’re inside.”

    Thank you for some great perspective.

    • You’re welcome, Karen. I love it when people quote back the parts they liked, because as a writer it shows me which parts were most effective. Funny enough, often it’s the same parts I had a little thrill over when writing.

  3. I couldn’t have said this better myself. It was absolutely my security that made me afraid. I had a job and a home and all the conventional things that were considered “necessary” to have a successful life, but they weren’t what I wanted. I know so many people who collect security in a variety of ways but they are not fulfilled people.

    I’ve faced my fears about quitting my job and moving to a tiny house. Now I am afraid of having to go back. Right now we’re staying with Matt’s mom in Michigan for a few days and things like the coffee maker and shower are kind of confounding me. I don’t want to backslide into civilization. I’m afraid of not being able to go back.

    I know you will rock this adventure. I am so excited to follow along.

    • Now I am afraid of having to go back.

      YES! This should be a whole blog post of its own. Have you written about this at all?

      I find this is unanimous among people who have broken away from a conventional lifestyle. All the fear melts and the idea of going back is somewhere between uproariously funny and horrifying.

  4. “Security makes us afraid.” Excellent point. Doesn’t take many words to express this! This summer I’ll be doing a few things that scare me too, although I won’t be travelling far to experience it.

    I think we all have “soft spot for comfort and security”:)

  5. I too am working towards a big leap (moving far to the north and out of the only state I’ve ever lived in. And my dad has much the same support your parents give you. Which, I am grateful for. He’s not pushing me one way or another.

    What I fear, though, is from the past. My mother would be “supportive” of me, then list all the horrible ways I could fail and screw my life up for the rest of my life. For years, such things kept me from seeking to accomplish anything. Even now, I feel it hold me back at times. Despite all the successes I have made, all the well nigh impossible things that I have accomplished that show me my talents at times, constantly I have to fight to try. Hopefully soon I’ll find a way to overcome that. As you said, “security makes us afraid.”

    • That’s very hard. My mom is terrified for me and cries sometimes at the thought of me going on this adventure. She tries to be supportive, but you can’t deny it creates an anchor holding you back.

  6. Beth says:

    Sorry, folks. I’m gonna have to disagree about how this is spun, though there is much here that I agree with wholeheartedly. It’s way too simplistic to say “security makes us afraid”. I think what makes us afraid is the awareness that we have something to lose. That’s much deeper and more complicated. And harder to admit.

    Here is a random online dictionary definition of fear: “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined.”

    Drew, you have a lot to lose in going on this adventure. You are leaving behind a lot. You’re leaving behind your relationships. You’re leaving behind the kind of safety that means you can spend some time thinking about philosophy (which you love doing) instead of desperately hunting for food (which I doubt you will love doing). You’d be a fool not to have distressing emotions aroused by the pain of leaving those things, not to mention the safety concerns this trip brings up.

    You also have a lot to gain. What your story above really says to me is that your soul is so fed by adventure that, at least for now, it’s worth the trade-off. What you gain from the adventure is apparently worth everything that you have to give up for it. You have been settled lately, and you’ve remembered what you are giving up for this trip. When you adventured again, you were reminded how much that feeds your soul. And you’re willing to make that trade-off.

    And that’s a beautiful thing. As you know, I started regularly doing things that scare me years ago. I believe that’s amazingly good for the soul. But it has nothing to do with needing to eschew security. It has to do with *choosing* which things I don’t want to lose (eg I value my relationships and am not interesting in sacrificing them), and which things I can risk losing (eg I am afraid to talk to this stranger because I could lose my sense that people think well of me. I could be hurt if I try to meet this physical challenge. I could encounter situations that I don’t know how to handle if I go on this trip to a new place by myself). Choosing to do things that scare you is a Best Practice for Life. But it’s equally legitimate for me to decide that there are things and people who I value and love, and who I will am not willing to leave behind me. It’s the complicated dance of figuring out what we really want, and accepting that we can’t always have it all.

    To me, this post reads as a condemnation of security as the primary motivator of fear. Sure, we can be afraid of losing security. But that doesn’t mean that all of humanity, or even you, are at bottom evolved not to be stationary, or live in society. It means that you have to make choices in life, and the things that come along with security are things you may value. And we experience a painful feeling when we consider having something to lose.

    It’s not useful to extrapolate that experience out into “We are all evolved to want to wander” and “security makes us afraid.” As Janis Joplin sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” If the freedom of this trip is worth what you will leave behind, that’s great. If you find others who also value that kind of freedom, awesome. They will join you, and you will live amazing lives. But you do a disservice to yourself, your readers, and the people you are leaving if you disguise the things you are choosing to leave behind as just some false sense of security that we weren’t meant to want in the first place. Choosing to live a traveling lifestyle is not universal. But the process of discerning which things you value, and facing the reality that you have to choose some of them above others, is something all humans have to face, and most aren’t very good at. THAT is the beautiful, universal thing about what you are doing, that everyone can appreciate and learn from and participate in.

    • Yes, this post is a condemnation of security as a primary cause of fear. And yes, it’s overly simplistic – it’s a blog post. They max at 1000 words and this is a topic that could fill an entire book.

      But let’s consider your counter-argument. You state that the real reason we become afraid is because we realize we have something to lose. That seems to suppose that people who don’t live a settled, conventional lifestyle have nothing to lose, which is wrong. Somebody who only has a backpack and has to look for food everyday still has a lot to lose, and a higher risk of losing it; if they feel happiness and peace rather than fear, there’s something else at play.

      But there is a deeper point here and it’s the one that directly affects you. The value of the things you “have” (and could lose) is not fixed. For example, you have a home, a regular source of income, and some luxuries. You could lose all of these things, and your awareness of that risk is a source of fear.

      Okay, except….

      People who willingly give up these things find themselves even happier than they were when they had them.

      The value of all these things is highly questionable. If giving them up makes you happier than keeping them, then the threat of “losing” them was an unrealistic fear in the first place.

      In other words, I don’t think a settled person’s fear comes from awareness at all. I think it comes from an accute lack of awareness, a certain willful incredulity at the idea that the shit they crave is also the anchor around their neck.

      If you realize that, you don’t have to run out and give up your whole lifestyle. But it’s incredibly liberating to know how much of it you don’t need, don’t benefit from, and have choice over.

      • Beth says:

        I feel like we’re talking past each other a little here. I don’t disagree with most of your comment above. My whole point was that security itself isn’t the root cause of fear; having something to lose is. There’s no reason that would imply that if you are not settled you would have nothing to fear – quite the opposite. I believe everyone will always have things to fear, regardless of their lifestyle. If a settled life were the root of fear, THAT would imply that the traveler would have no fears.

        And just as you say, the value of the things we have to lose is not fixed. It varies from person to person and even across different times in our lives. That’s why it’s up to each of us to really consider our fears, and decide when that fear is a useful pointer and when it is an unnecessary hindrance. Fear is not negative. It helps us avoid pain. The project of living a fulfilling life is to respect the fears which are keeping you safe from things that really could damage you or the things you value (eg your most important relationships) and to move past the fears that are holding you back for no good reason.

        Sure, there are people who give up a settled life and are happier, but unless you’ve found a scientific study that proves that ALL people would have that same reaction, you can’t extend that to everyone. Those who become unsettled are a self-selecting group. You can’t project their experience onto everyone else.

        To you, things that might make you value staying in one place are anchors around your neck. But I don’t see anchors as categorically bad. Yes, some of them can keep you from moving on when you need to. But sometimes your anchor is the thing that keeps you safe from crashing into the rocks during a storm, or allows you to spend time in a place of beauty. My life is made more beautiful by the people I love. I grow from those relationships. I choose to prioritize those relationships. That means I’m unlikely to up and move to Tallahassee. Not because doing that would be bad, but because the trade-off isn’t worth it for me personally. It’s unfair to claim that this is somehow proof of the negative value of security.

        • “…there are people who give up a settled life and are happier, but unless you’ve found a scientific study that proves that ALL people would have that same reaction, you can’t extend that to everyone. Those who become unsettled are a self-selecting group. You can’t project their experience onto everyone else.”

          In school I learned of studies showing that people in present day hunter-gatherer societies are on average happier and more fulfilled than people in our own society. Contributing factors include more personal freedom, less hours of work per week, healthier diet, more exercise, regular contact with nature, and the ability to move and travel as desired. All of these are hard for settled persons to attain. There are also disadvantages to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle but nonetheless people living that way are on average happier.

          I have not, unfortunately, seen studies on people who started in a settled lifestyle and later switched to a freer lifestyle. I wish there were more studies on human happiness. From the experiences of watching people go through it at a wilderness school, it seems that there is an adjustment period lasting up to a year during which they may be unhappy at times or even leave and revert to a settled lifestyle. Those that stick it out through that period are then much happier than they formerly were in their settled life.

          You, Beth, would be happier if you you untethered. No social trend is 100% and there are definitely outliers, but we are quick to assume we are the outliers when by definition we are likely not to be.

          Every person reading this who has a full time job, owns a house, or has any other anchor holding their family in a single place and dictating how they spend their time: you are choosing a less happy lifestyle than other options available to you. Act accordingly.

          • Beth says:

            We’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one, because we are arguing in circles around each other. But I will say that I find it very presumptuous of anyone to think they can predict or prescribe my or anyone else’s happiness. You are not me. You do not know what would make me happy. End of story.

              • Miriam, I’m not sure which of us (me or Beth) you’re chiding here. Beth’s the one championing a subjectivist take, and I’m the the one whose stance could be mistaken for universalism; “proclamations about the universality of subjective well-being” leaves it rather ambiguous. And yes, snarky.

                • Miriam says:

                  You’re right, I had intended the comment for you, Drew, but accidentally put it after Beth’s. I feel that you overstate the universality of your specific approach to happiness. I’ve heard about the ~$75,000 threshold study and several about worker satisfaction & productivity related to employer flexibility, that you cite below, and I think they’re very interesting and make a lot of intuitive sense! I also think they support understanding well-being in a framework of balance or tension between stability and novelty; safety and unpredictability; comfort and challenge. I haven’t read the literature extensively, but I suspect that there’s quite a bit of research about the individual differences among people’s preferences for where they live most happily on those spectra. Some people are most happy and fulfilled living the unpredictable, adventurous life of a freelance war photojournalist; others gain a sense of profound satisfaction from working steadily for 20 years at the museum that displays the photography…

                  I greatly admire your plans for Adventure, and from your description it sounds like it is absolutely the right thing for you to do at this time in your life. I just feel that when you dismiss any other approach to happiness, you are insulting everyone I know who has, with great introspection and deliberation, chosen priorities different from yours and found happiness through those choices.

                  • Thanks for that thoughtful reply, Miriam.

                    To an extent I agree with you. No one definition of happiness will work for everybody and there is definitely a spectrum of how adventurous or routine, spontaneous or planned, someone will want to be.

                    I believe that people can find that entire spectrum within lifestyles that are not tied to a fixed place by virtue of mortgage, employer or other social pressure.

                    For example, my friend Donna owns a farm that she built herself in the 70s and has tended her whole life. She’s very happy doing it, and won’t be happier if she’s off hiking or sailing. But she also has a huge reserve of money and could quit, move, retire or vacation at any time. In her case, her job never feels like a cage, it’s a choice.

                    I would like to move more people from the cage to the choice. Their choices won’t always look like mine but as long as they are still in love with the cage, or even mistake the cage for a source of happiness, they have a significant handicap toward being happy.

            • It’s not presumptuous at all: it’s science. There are many ways in which I can predict your happiness. You would be happier if you had an income of $75,000 a year or so; but additional wealth beyond that would not make you happier. You would be less happy if you had worse health care or if your employer wasn’t so flexible with your hours. I can tailor these to you because I know you personally, but they’re human nature. They’re true for almost anyone.

              The issue here isn’t talking past each other. We seem to understand each other quite clearly. The issue is that you don’t like what I’m saying. And that’s something I’m taking a firmer stance on. This blogger believes: that more freedom = more happiness, that people have the ability to seize that freedom, and that if you don’t, you’re missing something.

              If you don’t believe those same things, this may not be the blog for you.

              (There are also readers who share those beliefs but are held back in some way… talk to me. And those who just like reading it because it’s fun. Fair enough.)

              • (There are also readers who share those beliefs but are held back in some way… talk to me….)

                I *do* hold your beliefs true for myself, and I have lots of freedom, but freedom is not my problem at this time in my life. I’m not sure how to approach an obstacle I’m dealing with, YET you have too much on your plate, Drew, so as much as I’d love to discuss it, I might just consult others. However, hearing your opinion/views makes me curious…

  7. “…when you have an opportunity to do something unique, take it”
    Yes! And usually those opportunities come, at least for me, when I least expect them, when I need them the most.

    Security makes us afraid? I don’t think so. I think it’s pensive and restless.

    Anticipation is the WORST. It makes me feel like I’ll die from it. But once I am on the road or at my destination, I’m fine. I deal with a disorder that pumps me full of too much emotional energy, so I need constant outlets. After reading this, I can relate to how you are. Whenever I plan to do something “big” I build it up and up and up to the point where soon I regret it, but then when I’m finally doing it, and that anticipation is gone and I’m finally exerting all that energy I stored up, it’s a relief!

    Reading this was a relief. It reminded me that I’m not alone feeling the way you do. I didn’t realize you were like this. Sometimes I assume you’re Mr. Brave-All-the-Time and I’m Ms. Hiding-in-her-Shell. Thank you. By admitting your anxiety, you’ve inspired me to get over mine.

  8. Oh, and your portrait made me LOL because you’ve got faux Elvis-face going on there. I know, totally off topic, but I can’t write anything more serious because your face… it reminded me of what it’s like to sit across from you and how you’d interrupt a serious conversation before it got too serious by doing something goofy. Damn it, Drew, stop making me miss you!

  9. Unfortunately, from my experience working with people, uncertainty makes cowards of us (or almost all of us) all. I’m glad to hear you are still dedicated to your journey.

      • Sure, I work with a lot of people who experience a variety of anxiety, the anxiety may manifest differently from situation to situation but at the root of the anxiety is almost always uncertainty (e.g. “if I do this, this MAY happen or WILL happen and I can’t face that). Part of my job is getting people to embrace the uncertainty, rather than run from it.

        I’ll give you a personal example. I workout at a Mixed Martial Arts gym. Now the last 15 minutes of class is devoted to one on one full contact sparring. Some of my opponents are larger, stronger or faster than me and some nights, I take a serious beating and have literally limped out of there on a few occasions. So, consequently, every time I drive to the gym, a debate formulates in my mind. What if I get punched in the throat again (only happened once, awhile back when I was new, but it was quite memorable) or what if I’m too bruised to walk properly the next day? What will my colleagues at my office say? In the end, I embrace the uncertainty, keep myself in the moment and focused and usually it all works out.

  10. After thinking about this for a while, I realized something… is it the false sense of security that influences us to fear taking risks, or the fear of risking our *sense* of STABILITY?

    Because, the way I look at it, Drew, one cannot fully take off for any risky adventure without first establishing stability somewhere. OR the adventure itself is a quest for stability.

    “One cannot go anywhere without first staring from Home”

    Drew, you have more than I could wish for; you have a mother who, thought she may not be like Alexander the Great’s mother, is one hell of a strong lady who has taught you well and stood by you. My parents never supported what I wanted to do with my life. When I met your Mom, I was so impressed by her.

    Unlike you, I do not have my parents anymore. I have no family obligations. No group of friends to visit nearby. Everyone I know is scattered to the four winds. I find myself with more freedom than I ever, EVER dared imagine I would ever have. Some people would think this would mean I have *nothing* to lose, but now that I’m a grown up, past the age of when Janis Joplin sang those lyrics “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”, I have learned that —

    TRUE FREEDOM MEANS YOU HAVE EVERYTHING TO GAIN because the whole world is open to you and nothing is holding you back now to go out there and grab it!

    That, in its self, is frightening because the chance to have that kind of freedom is rare, sometimes only open to you once in a lifetime, and you could really fuck it up! That’s the fear you set yourself up for when you put all your energy into doing something epic — you could set yourself up for failure and become a cautionary tale — or you will overcome your fear and earn that laurel crown.

    I can’t write anything more for fear of tearing up, you understand, so I’m just going to look back at your photo and have a smile. I’m waiting for the day I can see your smile in person someday.

    • Some fear is good, it keeps us alive and from recklessly killing ourselves. Others have fears we’ll (you and I) never comprehend, because of our white privilege.

      Strongly agree. Checking out your writings now.

  11. Pingback: Fear: the root of prejudice, blame, contempt, hatred, hysteria, phobia & paranoia « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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