Ned Breslin shares a haunting story from his past.
Social entrepreneurs hear the world “fearless” quite a bit. Fearless leadership and fearless actions are needed in a world where drab incrementalism rules the day. Complex social problems will never be addressed unless we fearlessly re-imagine new pathways, and implement new solutions to society’s oldest problems. Only then, with such courageous action driven by fearless leadership can the world truly shift for the good.
I have found that being fearless often requires you to have known fear, and been alone with that fear. Deeply alone and isolated with your fear, searching for ways out of the loneliness, isolation and fear, often with unexpected allies along the way.
My brother and I shared a walk-in closet as kids on Hayfield Court in Potomac Maryland. We did not have many clothes and we certainly did not hang them up often. No, the closet was our place to store our treasures and discarded sports gear. I had boxes full of comic books — The Avengers, Fantastic Four, and X-Men where abundant. My favorite comics were preserved in plastic, organized neatly in order of publication, and rarely touched after that first read. Superheroes preserved for another day.
The closet had a light and a thick door. There was no lock on the door, but the door was strong, and when closed I could melt into the corner, behind my comics, with superheroes in plastic protecting me. The closet had the distinct smell of laminated wood that lined the walls and the floor. But on this night the strong odor of the wood fought, and lost, to the smell of vomit that covered my wet pajamas, creating a soupy mixture that did not appeal.
My shaking was imperceptible in the dark. But I was not as quiet as I wanted to be, as my shivers forced the wet vomit to crash from pajama to floor, as loud as a drum in my childlike ears.
Boom… Boom… Boom…
My hands and arms press my wet pajamas closer to my skin, failing to quiet the drums.
Boom… Boom…. Boom…
I curl into a ball in the hopes that the dripping will stop, the drumbeat will stop, and he will not find me in the back of my closet, hiding behind my comics.
My head finally rests on the ground; my wet hair marries the floor. I shiver in the dark; eyes wide open. I have not blinked in forever.
The closet calms, as the drumbeat of vomit seems to have stopped. I snuggle with the ground, eliminating the gap between pajamas and floor that made so much noise. I am so cold, so wet…
I slowly take my pajamas off, trying hard to do so in silence. Iron Man faces the door, unwilling to watch a child disrobe, even hidden as that child is in the dark. The pajama pants seem to fall off effortlessly but I struggle with the shirt. Too much noise, wet vomit pounding the floor, as I pull the shirt over my head.
I am free, and naked, and again settle on the floor, trying to find some warmth from the wood. The pajamas discarded with their stench at my feet.
My ears focus on noise outside the closet. Its quiet, but all houses talk at night. A slight sound echoes in the distance. Footsteps? No, not footsteps, thankfully…
There is that brief moment before the brain takes over and saves you from the horror that is too much for a child to bear. That brief moment where you are scared and know you are truly alone. That moment before your brain buries the shame and horror deep inside, for another day, maybe.
It was at that moment, just before my brain saved me, when I knew I was truly alone and I felt the depth of my fear. My brother slept outside the closet door, peacefully, and did not stir until a new day dawned.
My mother had meekly tried to reason with my father as he pulled me into the shower, pajamas still on, helpless under his grip. His rage shifted momentarily from me to her, and she melted behind the door under his sharp gaze. I looked her way as she moved out of sight but her eyes never met mine. She was not looking at me, only him. She wore fear on her face like a mask, but she left her superpowers in the box in my closet.
Some time later I walk back down the hall to my room, hall light keeping me exposed. A lonely walk, to the safety of my closet. Vomit mixed with shower water launch from pajamas to hallway floor, in step with the shuffling sound of my tiny feet moving me further from the monster and my mom.
Boom… Boom… Boom…
I found sanctuary, naked, alone and abandoned, in my closet. The roots of my fearlessness forged in the darkness.
I tell myself, as my shivering abates on the closet floor and before my brain takes me away, that it will never happen again. My breathing steadies and Thor nods yes. Captain America gives me a small smile and says, “we have your back” as his gaze shifts with mine, brow furrowed, to the closet door.
Photo credit: vagawi / flickr