Sitting in a window seat soon after takeoff, I watched as we passed over the Coney Island shorefront where I grew up. And while that image will always be emblazoned in my mind, I knew in my heart that I could never go home again. Not really.
It wasn’t the first time I’d considered the meaning of Thomas Wolfe’s posthumous novel You Can’t Go Home Again. I’d left Brooklyn decades before and, while it was always exciting to return, it never really felt the same. While I can certainly wax nostalgic at times, I’ve always felt more comfortable living in the present than the past.
Besides, this time was different. I’d been in town for my mother’s funeral, and since our tiny apartment had long before been rented to strangers and I had no living relatives left in the city, I knew that her passing marked the final chapter for the place where I’d grown up.
As I stared out the oval-shaped window at the ocean and beaches below, a sort of heaviness and a sense of finality came over me. And then I felt something else, something I couldn’t identify at first. Then I realized what it was. It was fear. And that was a very strange feeling, considering the circumstances.
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During hundreds of flights and millions of miles over a long and heavily traveled career, the flight home to California had always felt exactly like that, like I was going home. Not this time. Instead, I felt an oddly disorienting juxtaposition. For the first time, I wasn’t entirely sure which way home was, or if I even had one anymore.
Once I returned to the Bay Area, day-to-day life took over and everything went back to normal. Well, sort of. I’ve thought about that day, that feeling, many times since. And I’m telling you about it for a very important reason. While fear is how your instincts warn you of danger, in the modern world, that powerful and ancient survival mechanism is often wrong.
Let’s go back to that flight. At that moment I wasn’t thinking about anything. My mind was completely blank. It wasn’t memories or nostalgia that gripped me that day but a primal fear from childhood. It was a feeling that those who’d always protected me, and the place where I’d always felt safe, were both gone forever.
Indeed they were. And at that very moment, that realization finally sunk in. To say it’s surprising how hard it hit me – how powerful the feeling was, especially so late in life – is quite an understatement. After all, I’d spent a lifetime fighting the urge to play it safe. I’d made it a habit to face fear, take risks, and reach for the stars.
I left home for college at 16. After graduation I moved to Dallas and, years later, to southern California. I didn’t know a soul in either place, and that’s exactly why I did it: to face my fear and grow up.
Meanwhile, the long and challenging climb up the corporate ladder never stopped tugging at my insecurities. With every opportunity – a key presentation, big promotion, important job interview, critical product launch – the fear was always there, lurking around the edges of my awareness.
As a senior marketing and sales executive in the technology industry, global travel came with the territory, but I never got used to being away from home all the time. Nor did I like lying awake in strange hotel beds in foreign countries waiting for the sun to come up because I was nervous about an important meeting or suffering from jetlag.
But I fought all that. I fought it with the work ethic my parents instilled in me – the drive to succeed and make them proud. And that motivation has always been stronger than the temptation to succumb to fear. So I never gave in. And while this story is a powerful reminder that fear remains with us throughout our lives, I know that I will never give into it. Never.
Instincts can be tricky. Sometimes you should listen to what your gut is telling you. Other times – when your fear is telling you to seek safety within your comfort zone – you have to fight it. You have to face your fear and know that, if you don’t grant it power over you, it has none. And, as you muster your courage and turn to face your destiny, know that fear alone can never hurt you.