I am not in the habit of rereading books. When I finish a book, I tend to move on to a new one and rarely find myself returning to stories no matter how much I loved them the first time around. There are, as is always the case in life, a few exceptions to this rule. Ordinary People was the first “adult” book I ever read way back in fourth grade. The school library copy I was reading landed in a swimming pool when I was on vacation and I was forced to buy it because of the damage. It’s the same copy I still have and I’ve read it countless times since my elementary school days, gently turning the stiff, nearly ruined pages. When I was young, I also read Say Goodnight, Gracie over and over again. It’s an incredibly sad story and I cried every single time I read it. I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird more than once because it was assigned reading in a couple of different classes. Same with The Canterbury Tales. And I’ve read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, several times now, even though it was only published four years ago.
Wild is the book I think about most often. It has stuck with me in a way that no other writing has. The wilderness, the solitude, the search for a self that is better and more whole than the person that heartache and self-hatred has forced you to become. I will return to certain passages in this book at moments in my life when I need particular inspiration. The section I go back to most often is one where Strayed writes about fear. As she first sets out for her long journey across the Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed describes her mental processing as the full weight of her decision (and of her immensely heavy, overpacked camping backpack) settles on her:
Within forty minutes, the voice inside my head was screaming, What have I gotten myself into? I tried to ignore it, to hum as I hiked, though humming proved too difficult to do while also panting and moaning in agony and trying to remain hunched in that remotely upright position while also propelling myself forward when I felt like a building with legs. So then I tried to simply concentrate on what I heard–my feet thudding against the dry and rocky trail, the brittle leaves and branches of the low-lying bushes I passed clattering in the hot wind–but it could not be done. The clamor of What have I gotten myself into? was a mighty shout. It could not be drowned out. The only possible distraction was my vigilant search for rattlesnakes. I expected one around every bend, ready to strike. The landscape was made for them, it seemed. And also for mountain lions and wilderness-savvy serial killers.
But I wasn’t thinking of them.
It was a deal I’d made with myself months before and the only thing that allowed me to hike alone. I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.
I am in the middle of a major transition in my life. My most significant transition yet. I find myself repeatedly returning to this passage. “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story…” Whenever I am feeling unmoored and anxious about an uncertain future and all of the hiccups, both large and small, that could greet me on my path, I make the conscious decision to tell myself a different story. I remind myself that I am strong, I am brave, I am safe. I tell myself that everything will be okay, because I have the power to deal with whatever comes my way. It is working. In the past few weeks, I haven’t felt even a little anxious about what the future holds for me. I feel confident and capable. I decided not to be afraid, and I no longer am. I am telling myself a different story and allowing that story to guide me.
It has been about a year since I read Wild in its entirety, but I return to this section probably once a month, pulling the book off of the shelf and opening directly to page 51, where the spine is a bit worn and loose from so much use.
Our lives are made up of thousands of little stories we tell ourselves, and that others tell about us. If you are feeling lost, afraid, stuck or unsettled, try evaluating the stories of your life and make the choice to tell a different one. Tell yourself you’re not afraid and perhaps, before you know it, you won’t be anymore.