In 1940, author, activist and lecturer Helen Keller published a book called Let Us Have Faith. In a chapter entitled Faith Fears Not she wrote:
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing*”
It’s one of my favourite quotes despite often being misquoted (with the addition of an “at all” at the end). I like it because it reminds me of the big picture, when fear gets in the way of making big, bold decisions about how I want my life to be.
Helen Keller is of course most famous for living a bold and fearless life despite being blind, deaf and initially considered mute. Keller suffered a viral illness at 18 months old that stole her sight and robbed her of her hearing; doctors diagnosed “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain” which was later believed to be scarlet fever or meningitis. She described her life growing up as being “at sea in a dense fog” – which is probably all the description you need.
Having faith must have been a daily challenge for Keller. If you can’t have faith in what you see and hear, then what remains must be an extraordinary faith in something else; not necessarily religious faith, though Keller had that, but a simple unwavering faith in life. The belief that with every step she took, the ground would not renege on an unspoken deal to be there beneath her feet, always. Without the anchors of sight and sound to guide her, all she had was faith in what she knew to be true – gravity, the ground, people who looked after her – and that these would be present and continue her whole life long.
I’m presuming a lot of course. But for the rest of us, gifted with all our senses – or perhaps burdened by them – how often do we have that same trust in life: that it will unfold in its own way without us needing to control every element, every moment, every outcome? How often do we feel that a bold step into the unknown will be met well and not with disaster?
Life goes on whether you sit on your sofa and binge-watch Netflix or get out there and follow your heart, do something new, give life the opportunity to live up to your expectations. But getting out there and doing something is invariably more interesting.
Fear of Failure
What usually stops the “doing something” and “following your heart-ing” is fear of course: a fear of failure, or humiliation, or rejection and so on. Fear either gives rise to a desire to try and control everything, or a feeling that no matter what you do, it will never amount to anything, so why bother? You could argue that laziness is just fear in disguise. Better to not try than try and fail.
But whether you’re frightened or not makes no difference. People who play it safe are not necessarily safer. People who go out and experience the world may not be safer either but life is richer, more colourful, more wonderful.
Life is an adventure… even if it doesn’t feel like it
Yes, you might be stuck in the same old, same old. Life may be feeling mundane and boring, hard work and difficult. But what you will always have is choice – and choice is exciting.
If nothing else in life, we have a choice in how we respond and react to the mundane and boring and difficult. Despite everything else we have a choice to be different, act differently, think differently. And that means we can act in completely new, better and more appealing ways. Even small changes – like taking a new route to work or choosing to have lunch anywhere but the desk – creates a gap between the old us living the boring/mundane/difficult life, to the new us, one step on the road to something better.
Try something different and you might meet someone new who’ll change your life, or you’ll find your perfect home on a new street. Maybe you’ll discover what it is you really want to be doing with your life.
You can put up with being unhappy or you can change it. You can stay or leave. You can shut up or speak up. But in that small moment of decision and change, adventure exists because, well…
Possibility is perhaps one of my favourite words (after serendipity). It promises hope, it even sounds hopeful. Which it is.
Possible is probable‘s more exciting, flamboyant cousin. Possible is a little lighter on her feet, more daring. She’s a lot more fun.
Sometimes we get stuck on what’s probable, and what’s likely to happen. Ask ourselves “what’s possible” and it’s almost like you can feel the grinding of our mental gearboxes as we start looking at a problem from a different angle. We often have a problem with possibility because dreaming and hoping for what’s possible often feels foolish, childish and silly. Probable is much safer ground, more grown up.
Yes, today might probably be much like any other. Or quite possibly it might be the start of something new. Set your mind to what’s possible, because when we’re open to possibility, we’re open to change and life being better. To life being an adventure. Because…
What’s the worst that can happen?
So you have a big dream or goal or idea, or just a notion of how you want your life to be different. But you keep putting it off because you’re frightened it will all go wrong.
Imagine for a moment the worst that can possibly happen if you decide to follow through? Describe it in full, gory technicolour detail. Your husband will leave you, you’ll be bankrupt and end up homeless relying on charity just to get by. Or you’ll fall flat on your face and everyone will laugh at you and you’ll have to go back to your boring job answering phones.
Once you’re finished imagining the full horror of failing, ask yourself what you would do then?
When I ask a client to go through this process. every time without fail they come up with a perfectly reasonable, logical course of action. They realise that even if the worst happened, they would still be okay, that they’d find a way to figure it all out.
If you can visualise the worst thing that can happen, you can also visualise the best.
Look for the helpers
Back when I was too young to know better I used to make a lot of decisions based on what my heart wanted. Which was a lot of fun (but not advisable some 30 years later).
I moved to San Francisco in my twenties because I was in love. But it wasn’t long before that all went kaput. The weekend that we broke up I also lost my job, and my home and I ended up sleeping on a friend’s sofa. It was 4th July. Independence Day. The irony wasn’t lost on me. As I heard the fireworks boom over Crissy Field, I contemplated my own independence, enforced as it was. I felt utterly miserable.
But that weekend where I felt like I had lost everything that had meaning to me, I realised I had something. When everything was stripped away I had myself. And my skills and my talents, my body, my mind. I remember looking at my arms and legs in complete surprise as if thinking “My God I’m still here, despite everything.” I felt pretty invincible – heartbroken, but invincible.
And then something lovely happened. People who were strangers then but who I now consider lifelong friends, rallied round and helped. As the much-loved children’s TV host Mr Rogers always used to say “Look for the helpers”. I had lots of helpers.
For someone whose life had just been upended, I felt in pretty good shape, pretty lucky. Because with these things – my body, my mind, my skills, my talents, and people to help – I had all I needed to start over.
On life’s ‘big highway’ you have all that you really need to start something new, start again, start out. You have all that you need for the journey: your brilliant mind (whether you believe it’s brilliant or not, it is), your amazing ability to love and be loved, your curiosity, your intelligence, your compassion, your connection. Everything else, all the other stuff is just a bonus. As Dr Seuss said:
“You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose”
The worst can happen and often does. But it happens despite, not because, you’re living life to the full. Life is a bitch. And then it isn’t. What is there really to lose except a life un-lived?
So love life with a big heart. Love people completely and allow yourself to be loved in return. Not the fake, pretend love that’s really something else dressed up as love in disguise. Love people who make you feel, as author Jen Sincero puts it “like you could carry a horse up a hill”.
And go for what you want, not what you think other people want for you. We’re here for such a little time. Try not to worry. Even if you can’t see the ground in front of you, trust you will be okay. And remember to look for the helpers and let them help you. Because helping also makes the helper feel good.
If you’re unhappy where you are, all it takes is just one step in a new direction. That’s the adventure. The ground will be there.
Helen Keller, Let Us Have Faith, 1940
- “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. God Himself is not secure, having given man dominion over His works! Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold. Faith alone defends. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.”