On Becoming Fearless

MY OWN BATTLES WITH FEAR
There have been many, many moments of fear in my life, but seven of them were critical - times when the fear was overwhelming but which taught me that it was possible to break through to the other side. To fearlessness.

The first experience of fear I remember was a particularly strange one. I was nine years old. Over dinner one night, my mother started telling my younger sister and me about the time during the Greek civil war, in the 1940s, when she fled to the mountains with two Jewish girls. As part of the Greek Red Cross, she was taking care of wounded soldiers and hiding the girls.

She described the night when German soldiers arrived at their cabin and started to shoot, threatening to kill everyone if the group did not surrender the Jews the Germans suspected (rightly) they were hiding. My mother, who spoke fluent German, stood up and told them categorically to put down their guns, that there were no Jews in their midst. And then she watched the German soldiers lower their guns and walk away. And just hearing it, I remember the fear rising inside me, not just fear for my mother and the danger she faced but fear for myself. How would I ever live up to this standard of fearlessness?

It was 1967, and a group of Greek generals had just staged a coup and established a dictatorship in Athens, where I lived. There was a curfew, and soldiers were stationed at every corner. I was seventeen years old and afraid - torn between the fear that paralyzed me and the desire to ignore the curfew and walk to my economics class so I could fulfill my dream of going to Cambridge University. I ignored the curfew and walked to class.

 

When I finally got into Cambridge, I instantly fell in love with the Cambridge Union, the university's famed debating society. But, to put it mildly, the Cambridge Union did not instantly fall in love with me. Even before starting my unrequited love affair, I had to overcome the barrier of having a heavy Greek accent in a world where accents really mattered. More important, I had to overcome the fear of criticism and ridicule. If I didn't, I knew I would never be able to speak fearlessly in public. In 1988, when I published my book on Picasso, I found myself in a battle with the art establishment. My sin was that I had dared criticize Picasso as a man, even while acknowledging his artistic genius. The book was called Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, and the art world would not forgive me for exploring the destroyer part - a not inconsiderable facet of Picasso's life. And this, after all, was a biography. My Picasso experience elicited two fears: the fear of being disapproved of by people I liked and respected, and the fear of being caught up in a public controversy.

The most heart-wrenching fear - confronting the possibility of great loss and one's own powerlessness to do anything to stop it - hit me when my younger daughter, Isabella, was not yet one year old. One night, completely unexpectedly, she had a fever-related seizure. I was alone with her. Seeing my baby turn black and blue and realizing she was unable to breathe brought me face-to-face with a chilling fear.

In 2003, I ran for governor in California. During the campaign I was confronted with the fear of being caricatured and misunderstood. Of course, it's in the nature of political campaigns to turn your opponent into a political caricature. But I saw firsthand how dif erent - and how much harder - it is if you're a woman, how much more exposed and vulnerable you feel. I remember sitting at the airport, waiting for a plane to Sacramento, deep in thought about all of this, when a young woman put a note in my hand and then disappeared:

 

Ms. Huffington,
I didn't want to intrude, but I wanted to thank you for your statements during the September 24th debate. You helped make it clear why women in particular should not vote for Schwarzenegger. While some have complained that your behavior was inappropriate, I realize that well-behaved women rarely make history. Thanks for taking on the fight.
Janice Rocco

My mother, who lived with me most of my life - through my marriage, childbirth, and divorce - died in 2000. Her death forced me to confront my deepest fear: living my life without the person who had been its foundation. I did lose her, and I have had to go on without her. But the way she lived her life and faced her death have taught me so much about overcoming fear.

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