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What I Know About Fear Now That I'm In My 60s

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FEAR 60S
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In her new book "Lean In," Sheryl Sandberg notes the ways in which fear can hold women back and the importance of pushing through that fear. She writes, "This book is what I would do if I weren't afraid." We asked women of different ages to share what they've learned about fear so far.

One of my earliest memories is of a hot summer night in Mineola, Long Island, when I was maybe four or five years old. To escape the heat, all the neighbors had moved chairs outside to their porches and the kids, unable to sleep in their stifling bedrooms, ran around the street in a pack chasing fireflies. I was the smallest child in the group and feeling oh-so-happy to be included. I was having a great time until one of the bigger boys snatched my favorite doll from my arms and threw her into the yard of the "haunted" house at the end of the block. I knew from the other kids that the man inside the house poisoned children who came into his yard. I stood there frozen, torn between wanting to rescue my dolly and terrified of the man who poisoned kids. Simply frozen. That was my first taste of fear. Decades later, just seeing fireflies reminds me of that night. Yes, that's how powerful fear can be. Here are some things I learned about it since I was five:

Fear of being alone can lead people to make some mighty bad choices.
Being alone is hard for some people. Whether it's that Noah's Ark thing where we all traveled in pairs, or just the fact that when you say "table for one" to the maitre 'd, you are invariably led to a table in the back by the kitchen, many people prefer coupledom to flying solo. It's why we move in together, get married and stay married -- even when we know we shouldn't.

Learning to spend time alone is a skill best acquired in childhood. I was raised as an only child, and frequently lacked playmates-on-demand. I learned how to amuse myself and in the process figured out that being alone wasn't anything to be afraid of. I spent years as a single woman and mastered how to travel alone, how to buy and sell homes alone, how to eat out in a restaurant alone. Now I live in a boisterous household filled with kids, animals and noise coming from TVs and computers constantly. I am so rarely alone that I secretly thank the soccer coach who keeps the kids late on Thursdays. I pour a glass of wine, go out on the deck and just be.

Fear of change only leads to complacency.
Whether it's taking a new job, ending a bad marriage, or moving to a new city -- when we let our fear of change paralyze us, we wind up stuck in a rut. Change can be energizing. It can sharpen your outlook, give you a different perspective on things. Fear of change is a problem worth tackling.

I know a woman who is so afraid of change that she's worn the same hairstyle for the past 15 years. Years ago she screamed a hairdresser into submission -- "I said a TRIM; do you hear me, a TRIM?" -- and will now go to no one else. Contrast that with my former colleague Susan Spano, a travel writer who once wrote how she found it invigorating to get her hair cut in whatever foreign city she was visiting -- including the $2 hair cut she got in a Beijing alley. Guess who's more fun to hang out with.

Fear of the unknown is often worse than the reality.
You know that. We all know that. It's our worry gene on overdrive. It's our need to be in control of everything all the time. It's the fear of the boogieman in the closet who we should have left behind when we moved into adulthood.

If you must obsess, the remedy is simple: Write down what you think the worst-case scenario outcome will be and figure out in advance what your handling-strategy will be. So if you're bored at the party and don't know who to talk to, you'll feign a headache and leave after an hour. What'd you lose, except an hour?

Fear of aging is just plain silly; what some people do because of it is just plain stupid.
OK, those are fightin' words, and this might be a point of some contention, so let's just say upfront that this is my opinion only. Why be afraid of the inevitable? Life is a journey, and hitting a milestone birthday shouldn't be a cause of despair. I don't want to live as long as possible, but I do want to live well as long as I can. To that end, I watch what I eat, and I get my mammograms on time. But I accept that I, along with everyone else, is going to die. For that reason, I keep my attentions focused on the things I really want to do. The older I get, the less time I have for uninteresting people, meaningless chatter and days wasted pleasing strangers.

As for aging, I can only speak from where I sit: For the most part, I've enjoyed getting older and with the exception of a stubborn bunion, really don't mind what's going on with my body. I'm not sure what there is to be afraid of about aging, especially since there is little you can control about it anyway. What I don't understand are the men and women who line up for Botox and facelifts like that's somehow going to make them recapture their youth. It doesn't; it just makes it harder to smile. I'd rather smile more.

Fear of unemployment is contagious.
This one is of course a fairly recent fear phenomenon. I've been in workplaces where the rumors of pending layoffs spread like wildfire. Emails and text messages fly fast and furiously. "John just got called to H&R." Your gut tightens, and you start to make lists of every job contact you have. You swear that if the axe spares you this round, you will update your resume and be proactive. But mostly, you just sit there and sweat, waiting to see if you get the shoulder tap. Nobody goes to lunch. A few brave souls meet at the water cooler, stealing furtive glances out to the office floor to see who is packing up their desk.

The only antidote I know to these awful awful days is to engage the fallen. Walk up to them, offer a hug and promise to make some calls to someone who might be hiring. It's encouragement, it's good karma, it's the humane thing to do.

Unemployment isn't contagious, but the fear of it is.

Fear of embarrassment can cripple.
Nobody sets out to make a fool of themselves, but it happens to each of us. What really matters is how strong our need is to avoid those situations. Do you not go to the beach because you are embarrassed by how you look in a swimsuit? Do you pass up the chance for an early-morning hike because you won't be seen without makeup? Do you not speak up at a meeting because you fear your ideas will be rejected?

We all have our own personal nightmares. The funny thing is how they change. I remember a time when, if my hosiery sprouted a run up the back, I would have just died. Now, I need to look up how to spell the word. Some embarrassments you outgrow, some just distance themselves from you with time. When my sports-insane husband got himself tossed out of our daughter's first AYSO soccer game, I was ready to list the house for sale and move someplace where nobody knew us. That's how embarrassed I was. Turns out, most people thought he was a local hero for taking on the pig-headed, power-hungry ref. And eventually, I came to appreciate the lesson he taught my kids: It's OK to question authority, and nobody but nobody is going to have your back like your Daddy does.

Fear of looking stupid.
Perhaps a first-cousin of fear of embarrassment, the unwillingness to ask for help or information because you're afraid you'll look stupid is just a one-way trip up a dead-end street. When I was a cub reporter, a wise editor once told me: "The only stupid question is the one you are afraid to ask." He was right. Learning to say, "I don't know" doesn't shut doors; it opens them.

Fear of admitting you were wrong.
This is a relationship-killing, friendship-busting fear that carries a prison term of loneliness. Sometimes, you just have to figure out which you want more: to be right all the time or to be happy. And P.S., nobody is right all the time.