What Would I Do If I Wasn’t Afraid?

We sat at the table along the right side of the room as Sheryl Sandberg talked to us about leaning in, sitting at the table, and other aspects of feminism. Our table had a case of the giggles leftover from the evening before, but I still managed to pay bits of attention between the bonding and the tweet-fake-fighting between friends.

I shied away from reading Sandberg’s book prior to the conference. I simultaneously heard glorious, fantabulous, best-things-ever and horrible, no-good, very-bad-things about the book, the message, and the delivery. I figured to come to the keynote with little-to-no bias might benefit me more than showing up either super-hyped for the speech or super-annoyed at the concepts held within the pages of her book. And so I sat, half paying attention, half loving my life and the people surrounding me at the breakfast table.

As she showed her video and I got a little weepy, her words began to pull at me.

When Sandberg said, as she has in many other interviews, that we need to do whatever it is that we do unapologetically, I felt a physical tug on my being. My attention withdrew from the table for a moment and I sat face-to-face with all of the things I’ve never done for so many reasons — or, rather, for so many excuses being posed as reasons.

I’m an apologetic person. I may seem all “I Stand for This No Matter What You Say,” but really, I like people to like me. I am a people pleaser to a fault. I can talk a big, bad talk, but really, I don’t like to make too many waves or upset too many people. I want all of the people to be happy all of the times. When I tell my story and share my truth, I feel guilty for making people feel uncomfortable. I understand that when people lash out at me for speaking, for sharing my truth, they do so because they are uncomfortable; it’s more about their issues and not about me. But I still feel bad; I feel like I shouldn’t have shared, shouldn’t have poked at their dark places.

That’s stupid.

Pieces of paper sat on the table with printed words: What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Afraid. Fear. I know those well.

Most people, or maybe people who don’t know me well, act shocked when I talk about being afraid, when I talk about my fears. “But you’re so… brave!” No. No, I’m not. I might seem that way, but that’s only because I have stopped putting myself out there, stopped taking many chances. I play it safe all too often, because risk scares me. Because the fear of failure often stifles me into quitting before I’ve even begun. Draft after draft of posts on bigger topics — the stuff that matters — sit unfinished, abandoned and neglected for fear of being judged, for fear of words being hurled back at me in retaliation.

That’s stupid. Human, true. But still stupid.

I eventually grabbed the green Sharpie — because everything is better in green — and began to write. I got out, “I would…” before I stopped. I couldn’t write it, couldn’t give voice and color and paper space and finality to the thought in my head, in the depth of my being. I sat there, marker hovering over the paper for quite some time. I carried on conversations and made jokes, ignoring the unfinished sentence.

“If you don’t know what to write, maybe you’re not afraid!” I smiled at my well-intentioned friend. “I know what to write, but doing so means acknowledging it and committing to something big. And scary.” “So, just write it.” The table agreed, including my husband.


I wrote what I would do if I wasn’t afraid — a lump stuck in my throat the entire time, tears edging at the corner of my eyes while I willed them to stay in as my mascara was not waterproof. I wrote it down in green ink on white paper in front of other people. Other people who would know if I failed, or if I did as I have done so many other times and never started in the first place. I avoided eye contact, certain to choke on a sob if anyone saw the vulnerability in my soul at that very moment.

Later, as I whined about the realities of doing the big thing, I got put in my place. “But it’s a lot of work!” Michelle from BurghBaby.com turned to me on the shuttle and held up two hands. Having just come from the International Activist Scholarship Recipient Panel, she knew just what to say to put me in place, to make me understand her point. “It’s a lot of work versus house arrest.” I glared a little. I muttered, “Ew!” She knew she had a point; the taking of time and the legitimate hard work that will be involved pale in comparison to being put under house arrest for simply helping other people as Zeng Jinyan from China endured. I sat with the realization that I had just been schooled. But it wasn’t over.

“A chapter. By the end of the year.”

I narrowed my eyes, ready to fight. But I didn’t.

I didn’t fight even though I have all of the excuses, the same ones I’ve always had at my disposal. I am busy. I do all of the things for all of the people because I haven’t quite learned how to say no, or not right now, or that’s enough. But in that moment, I couldn’t bring myself to utter a single excuse. My youngest starts all day, everyday Kindergarten in 19 days. Sure, I’m training for another half-marathon, but that just gives me more time to think, to form coherent thoughts, and play with words as I pound the pavement day in and day out. Maybe I’m tired of making excuses.

Maybe I’m finally ready.

I’ve changed a lot in the past year, physically and otherwise. I feel like a real, grown adult woman who not only has survived a number of things but finally found the strength to own those things without letting them define who she is or who she wants to be.

Maybe it’s time.

I wrote down my “what I would do if I wasn’t afraid.” I took the picture in the provided photo booth, complete with a accountability photobomb. And then I came home and hung both the paper and the photo on the bookcase next to the desk in my office, the place where I sit and write every single day.

What Would I Do If I Wasn't Afraid? I Would Write the Damn Book.
What Would I Do If I Wasn’t Afraid? I Would Write the Damn Book.

Now I’m faced with the doing of the thing, the actual making of time and sitting down and writing the story that I want to tell. Not all of the stories, just the one that needs to be told in the certain way it needs to be told. It is not my job to tell all of the stories, either all of mine or the related stories of others. I accept the challenge of telling this one story in this one way in hopes of getting rid of the gnawing ache the not telling has left me with for all these years.

It is time.



Fitbit Flex Activity + Sleep Wristband

18 Replies to “What Would I Do If I Wasn’t Afraid?”


    And as it goes, if you can do it, so can I.

    Fuck, Jenna. Fuck. (you can totally not publish this if that’s too profane. but i want you to see it.)

  2. Hi, Jenna.

    Your hubby was with you at BlogHer?! That’s twice today you’ve nearly killed me.

    I agree with you and everyone here: It is time. Go for it!

    And might I add this: Be gentle and kind when Fear rears her head and sends you back a few paces. Love yourself. Love her, for I have found that when I can treat fear with softness as opposed to trying to STARE HER DOWN, she and I come to an even greater undestanding, which benefits us both. You see, Fear isn’t our enemy, she’s often our guide, one that takes us to some of the darkest, steepest parts of ourselves… But, man is she wearing one freakish costume and carrying one big stick… ;-)

    All my best as you inch forward in writing that DAMN BOOK.

    Hugs and healing, Journeyer…

    p.s. I thought about writing my blog for nearly three years before I ever got the courage to sign up and write one word…and today, three years later, you discovered me. And I am so, so grateful…

  3. Shut your face!!!! I am so excited for you. If you need an editor you know I can totally do that. I love you even if you make me cry this early in the morning. So proud of you my friend.

  4. I think once you start, you won’t be able to stop. I think all the words are going to pour out of you. Your story is important. For all of us.

    I’m honored to be a part of this journey. Even if it’s just because I jumped in on your photo.

    And, omg, kindergarten.

  5. Go Jenna! You can do it! I am working on one too and aim for 15 minutes a day. I always amazed what I can write in that amount of time. Sometimes I let myself go longer and I also take time off, when life gets in the way (like this summer). But I intended to get back on track soon. I am proud of you facing your fear and committing to telling your story. I also look forward to reading it!

  6. You can write the damned book. You are not going to sit down and write it in one big session. There will be days where you write 100 words and others when you can’t stop writing. There will be days when the writing is easy and others where it will be like getting blood from a stone. You will get a point where you want to toss it and start over and that’s when you’ll tell me and I tell you not to and that every. single. author. hits that point in a book.

    You CAN do it. I know you can.

  7. I think you’ll be fine. And with the young one in school, you might be able to set aside an extra hour to devote to the book.

  8. Well done Jenna! I love your transparency here. I had to leave Friday night, so I missed the Saturday morning presentation and I’m glad to read your view. Do you know Jana Stanfield’s song? Here is a link.
    I met Jana at Women’s Voices for (a) Change in June at Skidmore College. Her activism fully engaged in an inspired way.


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