I have a long history of being a gigantic chicken. It began early on, but the interesting stories started in junior high.
There was the party in eighth grade at my best friend’s house that I left early because all of the popular kids showed up and started drinking. Her dad was gone for the night, and word swept through our class like wildfire. It looked like one of those party scenes from a John Hughes movie only with higher voices and less chest hair.
While the other kids had fun, I freaked out, called my mom and stood on the street corner waiting for her to come and get me. She rolled up immediately behind the two cop cars that were careening toward my friend’s house.
Guess what? My parents were so proud of me for having the guts to call them and get me out of there that I got to go shopping the next day with my mom. She bought me the bleached jean jacket from the The Gap that I had been hounding her about for months! I was thrilled and, at the time, it was pretty kick ass. Clearly I had sacrificed all hope of being popular at that point, but I knew that I would never enjoy being popular if that was what it looked and felt like at 13. I was much happier with my safer friends, with whom I hung out in my super cool, brand new bleached jean jacket.
Many similar scenes followed this event over the years. There were other parties that I left. There was the time that I turned myself in as a "virgin" the first time I went to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I have multiple stories of crying on the top of ski hills. The first time my husband ever met me was when I ended up throwing him and everyone else out of a party at our apartment because I was afraid our new landlord would kick us out. I have a lengthy track record of anxious, overly careful moments from which to draw!
These days, being a nerd has a certain pop culture cachet. Steve Jobs was a god. Where I live in Seattle people whisper about Bill Gates sightings the same way they describe rare sightings of Dave Matthews, various members of Pearl Jam or their uncle spying Big Foot on a hunting trip. We want our kids to speak Mandarin and love math.
Call us what you will: Worriers, goody-two-shoes, nerds. But thank God for all of this! I waited a long time for nerds to be appreciated and, who knows, my kids might need it someday.
But rarely does the anxious, careful, nerdy kid get any praise. Usually, he is sucking his inhaler on the sidelines. She’s pulling someone’s sweater sleeve or stuttering in the corner somewhere. Well, screw it! I’m anxious and I’m proud.
I am letting my freak flag fly, baby! I’m reclaiming it. I’m anxious and I know it.
Here’s why I’m embracing it. Right now I am sitting alone at a campsite and writing. My face is drinking sun, my feet are up and I have been listening to the creek and watching the trees sway above me for two hours. I am all by myself and allowed time to be selfish, serene and lazy. It is wonderful. The only reason that I have this sliver of time is that I completely freaked out and had to leave a hike that my 4-year-old is currently completing.
Yeah, you read it right. My 4-year-old can do it but it made me cry. I said it!
Now that my panic has ceased and I am no longer on that horrible, terrifying, sweaty and miserable hike, I’m as happy as I’ve been in months. It is pure bliss and my entire spirit is replenished.
Why? Because I listened to every cell in my body that was telling me to leave. I listened to my inner anxious, hiked that freak flag and left my family and our friends up there on the side of that mountain. It wasn’t right for me. Just like that party wasn’t right for me 25 years ago. I could be miserable scrambling up that rock face with everyone else. But I’m not. I’m here. I'm fully here, and it is a gift.
I see this inner anxious voice as having an incredible benefit. Not only did it get me a kick ass jean jacket, it allows me to do this. This voice is what allows me to write. I sit. I’m calm. I live in my head a little bit. I watch. I find a moment. I connect things. Just as this world needs doers and risk takers, it also needs watchers.
We need people to follow the rules, to embrace the stillness and not the rush. To remind us to listen to our inner voice and do what is right for each of us. We need people who point out danger or push caution sometimes. There are days when the biggest blessing is a reminder to slow down and enjoy the moments that are calling to you.
So here I sit on the sidelines, and I’m tugging at your sleeve. I’m the anxious kid waiting for my mom on the street corner. I’m the one scrambling down the rock face when everyone else is scrambling up. But do you see this smile on my face? I might just be one of the happiest anxious people I know.
Stephanie Olson is a mother of two boys who lives and writes in Seattle. She believes her golden rule in parenting, “Just wipe it off on your pants!” will be her epitaph someday. It has gotten us through pretty well thus far. Read more of Stephanie's work on her blog, Ma Swell Vie.