Ask This Question To Find Your Strength

All I had to do was stay in the chair but all the tiny engines inside my cells were redlining and revving to run at full speed.

The brakeman in my brain rose up like the face of the Great and Terrible Oz, commanding me to “Focus! Pick up the pen!”

The task was simple: In 20-ish minutes, read a few pages in a handout and use the pen to annotate. The less said about the task the better because the context of it was a competition bound by signed confidentiality agreements.

The only times I felt as intimidated, as distrustful of my own abilities and close to physically barking in panic as I did sitting in that chair was being lost and late in two international airports.

In Beijing, my host left me in a line so packed with people that it seemed like someone had slanted mirrors to create the effect of infinite duplication. All of the signage was in pictographs; my brain flailed for information like hands feeling for light switches in the darkness. At that moment, it seemed impossible that I would actually board a plane that would somehow take me back to Amarillo, Texas.

But, the brakeman said, you’ve faced worse, and he pressed play on an internal video of the Istanbul airport. I’d flown straight from Beirut, trusting that there would be a helpful “fixer” like Rudy to meet me. Rudy, with his shaved head and paunch, made me feel safe in a way even my armed guards from the State Department had not.

Rudy knew how to find a way around obstacles like missing paperwork or official documents. He passed folded bills to several sketchy characters along the way that led to me boarding the plane. But in the Turkish airport, there was no Rudy. In fact, there was no one at all — not even on the other end of the phone number I was supposed to call in an emergency.

Also missing: my suitcase. I waited in a line for an hour to find out that I needed a visa just to cross the airport and get to my gate for the flight to Tel Aviv.

I felt my sense of self take flight as if someone were zooming out on a Google map, losing me in a haze of anonymous pixels, never to be reconstructed as the person who sat watching squirrels chew pecans outside her living room window on Ong Street.

You should know by now that everything worked out even though at the time, each event seemed like the end of the world. But that’s how most things feel to people like me who have chronic anxiety.

One of the treatments for anxiety is exposure therapy. You move toward the thing, like spiders, let’s say, that scares you, eventually becoming able to even pet the spider in the fuzzy spot right above his two rows of beady black eyes. Exposure to the primal feelings of being lost coated my insides with a thin layer of resilience.

All the competitive pressure of the situation that put me in that super top secret reading task scraped against my meager reserve of courage, chipping it.

It’s what you do when you want to run that matters, I found. When my hand, as if gripped by sudden palsy, dropped the pen during those tense twenty minutes, it was picking it back up that mattered. And it’s also how you talk to yourself at those times that determines your ability persist in a task that feels impossible at the moment.

Researchers found that it’s in asking yourself — preferably with your first name if you can, as Joseph Campbell wrote, do the damned thing. Like so: Shanna, can you do this? Just asking yourself a question in this way sets your brain to finding evidence to support an affirmative answer. The airport trauma was all the evidence I needed to answer.

I’m a few days out from making the biggest leap of my life — from Texas to Massachusetts, from a secure job to no job, from the comforts of knowing the answers to not knowing anything — and I ask myself: Shanna, can you do this?

I’ve honed my answer to one word: Istanbul.

See? That’s not so hard.

It is by going down into the abyss
that we recover the treasures of life.

Where you stumble,
there lies your treasure.

The very cave you are afraid to enter
turns out to be the source of
what you are looking for.
The damned thing in the cave
that was so dreaded
has become the center.

You find the jewel,
and it draws you off.

In loving the spiritual,
you cannot despise the earthly. — Joseph Campbell

Image credit: Daniel Burka/Unsplash


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