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Facing the Fears of the Unknown

06/21/2013 11:45 am ET | Updated Aug 21, 2013

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Candy Chang's marvelous experiment in community building in New Orleans provides an excellent opportunity for us all to reflect on what we want to do before dying. Even more important, it offers us a vision into how we may live more fully.

The brilliant existential psychotherapist and author of Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, opined that the meaning of life is to give life meaning. A "bucket list" may exemplify one manner of exploring personally the meaning of life.

Ms. Chang was spurred to her chalkboard wall by the death of a loved one and inevitably facing her own life limits. It struck a chord in her community because for all of us, life involves dealing with losses (increasingly so with our greater longevity). These losses of course, can be through death or lost connection of loved ones, or it can be losses of personal dreams, capabilities or potential. From midlife on, one of our major psychological tasks is to review our lives, explore those possibilities we have left behind and make decisions about how to create our future.

For my recent book, Finding Meaning, Facing Fears in the Autumn of Your Years (45-65), I did extensive interviews with approximately 200 individuals. Of course, their responses do not fall easily into any single category, but there were two trends that dovetail well with Ms. Chang's innovative wall.

The first was a spur to psychological growth through a confrontation of an inevitable tension between the oft opposite poles of freedom and security. The needs for freedom pulls us to explore the new, the unknown; the needs for security focuses us on safety and the familiar. A singular focus on security leaves us with the guilt of living in the status quo and psychological stagnation. By contrast an over-dependence on the primacy of freedom often can leave us with loneliness and life filled with the fear of isolation, disconnection, abandonment and loneliness.

A successful life requires living with the tension between the fear of the unknown (ultimately non-being) and the guilt of the status quo. This tension presents itself in both macro life decisions and also in choices about each moment of life.

The second theme was an expressed desire and need for a better relationship with self, more more time with loved ones, more connection with friends and community. Intimacy in the form of being fully present in the moment may well be the best antidote to mortality.

All of us had to let go of some dreams, talents and wishes to make an adult life. -- Dr. Jerrold Shapiro, Ph.D.

With her wall, Ms Chang offers us an insight into both trends. The question, "before I die I want to...," makes us all think of what we may wish to accomplish, experience or re-experience while we are still on this earth. It is telling that most examples of what people wrote are both quite achievable and involve greater connection with others. Of course, populating a personal bucket list likely involves revisiting our past decisions. All of us had to let go of some dreams, talents and wishes to make an adult life. For most of us, those decisions were both wise and effective at the time. By the time we pass midlife however, it is likely that the very successes have become the status quo and those patterns may actually be standing in the way of our future growth. When we begin to revisit our history, recapture our childlike wonderment and burgeoning adolescent skills, we place ourselves in a position to make new, perhaps different decisions for the rest of life. Maybe it really is time to play bass in a rock band. It can be daunting to modify the methods that have gone well so far and you may be fearful and resistant to trying, yet it is essential to deal with a new life context; one with awareness of the sands of time in the now overturned hourglass of life. This is a new context and it calls for novel responses. For life to evolve fully, a rebalancing is mandatory.

In my experience, the essential new desire is to be closer to loved ones, be more connected in a community, better attuned to one's self and to be more giving to others

Making a bucket list is tantamount to a commitment to face the fears of the unknown. The nature of chalk is ephemeral and writings on Candy Chang's wall may be anonymous, but it is also public and witnessed attestations are more powerful motivators. Just ask anyone who has struggled with an addiction.

There is one other endearing aspect of the chalkboard wall. It represents what we psychologists often call a "parallel process." Not only does it allow for thinking, communing and writing about goals before the end of life, but the creation of the wall, in and of itself, may be a bucket-list item come to fruition.

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