“Matt, you have to remember that in Canada, very few people actually starve to death.”
I still remember those words whenever I’m feeling unsure, anxious, afraid. They were spoken to me years ago by a mentor of mine, a former boss– a man who I always respected for his ability to be decisive yet calm under fire, who led by inspiration, and who showed me that respect, friendship and camaraderie can coexist with a robust clash of ideas.
For those keeping track, it’s been a month since my last column was published. This is because our second daughter was born, and my wife and I were in the thick of adjusting to juggling a toddler and a newborn. If anything can trigger introspection, it’s the birth of a child. My second daughter’s birth had me thinking about my goals in life, and the things that had been keeping me from realizing them. It dawned on me that every self-imposed obstacle I’d struggled with in my adult life had a common origin: fear.
When you look at the world through the lens of fear, every problem is a crisis, every argument is a rivalry, and every challenge is an attack. But in reality, most of the things that we fear never come to pass.
Between the age of 16 to the time I graduated university in 2002, I wrote prolifically; I wrote for the school papers (both underground & official), I wrote prose and poetry for my own creative catharsis, I did piecemeal freelance work, and I maintained several personal websites. In 2002, I entered the working world, thinking that I’d work for a few years to pay off the usual student debts before going back and getting my teaching degree.
And then, I just stopped writing. Stopped completely. Why? Because I’d been told by so many “experts” that if I posted anything online, I’d be done for, career-wise. I became afraid of the shadow of my own opinion. Over time, I ratcheted up my Facebook privacy settings, ensured that I never said anything controversial in my few online postings, and basically clammed up. My creativity withered. I didn’t write a story, didn’t write a poem, didn’t write an opinion piece for years. Fear of losing my job drove this intellectual retreat. First it was fear of not being able to pay those student debts; as I got older, the fear progressed to fears of not being able to pay my rent, fears of not being able to afford our wedding, and fears of not being able to provide for my daughter.
In 2010, I had an epiphany. My daughters were the reason for it. Suddenly, realizing that soon I’d be a daddy not to one but to two girls, I realized that it was time to set an example. Daddy can’t be a coward. Daddy can’t be afraid to have an opinion. I didn’t want to imprint that kind of fear on my children. Suddenly, the massive pressures of fatherhood switched gears, and instead of terrifying me with the responsibility that it laid on my shoulders, fatherhood inspired me to be a better man, one who would not set an example that taught that the only opinion worth having was a safe one– that security trumped freedom.
The worst kind of censorship is self censorship; this is a truism, but it is a fact. Self-censorship begins with the pen and metastasizes into the brain and soul; if you go on too long being afraid to share your art or your opinion, you’ll begin to forget that you had anything to say at all. You’ll become a shell that you filled yourself with what you thought everyone else wanted you to believe.
After this sudden attitude change, my old fears seemed baseless. Is it really such a bad thing to post an article here and there, even if it does mention that you occasionally get drunk to write? And more importantly, if the rug was pulled out from under you, would you just give up?
Very few people in Canada actually starve to death. What my mentor meant was that as long as you are willing to keep on slogging and trying, you will find a way to live your life. And when you die, you will be happy knowing that you lived your life free of the shackles of fear.