December 30, 2018 · Maddie Schulte– Riverbend wRiters
Every year, I adopt a word that will be my “word of the year.” I began the “word of the year” practice a few years ago in lieu of New Years’ resolutions. I’ve since found it to be one of the most powerful forces of change in my life. I commit to my word for twelve full months. Whatever that may look like. Whatever that year may bring.
Those who know me well know this is pretty much a sacred practice for me. By this point, I really should have some sort of initiation ritual to christen my word as it assumes its duty for the new year. (But, I’m already odd enough as it is, so I’ll probably just keep it as more of a low-key inauguration.)
I make lots of lists and pray and talk to friends and mentors when I choose my word. It’s not a flippant decision. “Fearless” was confirmed for me in early December 2017 on a flight from Seattle to Austin. I was watching the scene in Beauty and the Beast when Belle asks her father, Maurice, about her mother. “Fearless,” Maurice replies. “She was fearless.”
I started crying right there in my airplane seat. That was how I knew.
When I thought about a fearless year — sitting in that airplane seat in December 2017 — a wave of triumphant imagery crossed my mind. I had just been promoted at work after a hard year in a position that wasn’t a good fit and I was convinced that the promotion was a turning point, a sign that good things were on their way. A new job? Bring it on. A boyfriend? I’d love that. The magical ability to not be nervous walking into a room full of people by myself when I don’t know a soul? Where. Do. I. Sign. Up.
A dear friend gave me a framed picture of the “Fearless Girl” statue in New York City to commemorate my word choice. If you’re not familiar with the statue, the short description is it’s a statue of a young girl with her hands on her hips, shoulders back, and the wind to her face as she stares directly into the face of a charging bull. (The longer description is much more complicated — the statue actually has deeper symbolism tied to promoting gender diversity and women in leadership on Wall Street. The initial installation’s proximity to the pre-existing “Charging Bull” sculpture created quite a bit of controversy, so it was relocated a few months ago.) However you choose to look at it, the photograph I have is a picture of fearlessness…literally.
That was going to be me. Staring into the faces of my fears with my hands on my hips, face to the wind, and gaze fixed upon whatever came my way.
Or so I thought.
How often do things in life ever go as we originally planned, though? Maybe like, 2% of the time. You can kick up the percentage a few notches if you’re particularly psychic.
As it turns out, my picture of fearlessness didn’t look a thing like the statue because here’s the thing about being fearless: The fear doesn’t go away just because you decided on a flight from Seattle to Austin that it was time for you to be more fearless.
In fact, I’m not entirely convinced it ever goes away. As I’ve leaned into fearlessness and what it looks like over the last year, I’ve discovered that fearlessness isn’t so much a stubborn adherence to appearing brave as it is an inner shift in how you approach the challenges that stand in your path.
Fearless means showing up. It means acknowledging that you might fail, but continuing on anyway. It means being vulnerable and brave and sharing your heart despite the fear of what others may think of you. It means falling, but then finding your wings to rise. It means extending others grace and compassion, but also extending that same grace and compassion towards yourself.
It’s having faith that everything will work out, as it should, when it should. It’s knowing your heart and going after the dreams that God has placed on it. It’s feeling the fear — all of the scary, messy, nerve-wracking parts of it — and carrying on anyway.
If I’m being honest, there were moments when I wish I’d have picked a different word. If I were to place myself in the position of the girl in the New York statue, I have been in the path of tremendous metaphorical bulls over the last twelve months. I lost my grandmother and my job (in the same week). I was unemployed for months. Somebody I dearly love was diagnosed with cancer, and others I love almost lost their lives to a freak accident. I promise you — nothing about my year has naturally leant itself to being fearless.
It would have been far easier to have written myself an exemption from being fearless in those especially difficult moments. Umm, you know what? I’d rather not be in the direct path of this charging bull. I didn’t know my year would bring all of these tremendous challenges. So, I have changed my mind. Fearlessness just isn’t for me! LET’S PICK A NEW WORD.
But, you know what? You don’t get to pick a new word in life.
Fearlessness is faithfulness displayed over and over. It’s not stepping aside when the fear crosses your path — it’s a commitment to living a life led by grace, compassion, tenacity, and courage regardless of what may come your way.
I can’t speak for the bronze “fearless girl” in New York, with her hands on her hips and her shoulders back. That’s not my picture of fearlessness. But, I can speak for myself, a “fearless girl” with a different picture of fearlessness — a picture of a girl whose heart is rooted in a faith that is bigger than any fear that may come her way.
Fearlessness takes a different form in each of our lives, depending upon the challenges we face. When Maurice told Belle that her mother was fearless, I think that’s really what he meant — Belle’s mother wasn’t stubbornly fearless for the sake of appearance, but she was fearless as she faithfully followed her own path, in her own way.
To bring us back to the title question: What does it truly mean to be fearless? To be “fearless” means following your path, and all that path may bring, with the confidence and assurance that every step is bringing you closer to who you were created to be.