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09/29/2014 11:32 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The One Word That Shifted My Attitude About Fear

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Sometimes the big realization is that nothing can, or will -- or has to -- change.

By Beth Levine

Recently, a friend asked me if I'd ever been to Israel. Before I could even open my mouth, she added slyly, "Oh, that's right. You can't get on a plane." I think she was trying to be funny.

There was a time when I would have died a thousand deaths: She knows my dirty secret; she's making fun of me; she thinks I'm pathetic; I am, in fact, pathetic. This time, however, I stopped the tape in my head and played a new one. It said, "Everyone has a screw loose somewhere, and having a thing about planes happens to be mine."

You have no idea how hard I've worked to get here.

I've been a fearful flyer since grade school. Once I grew up, I could white-knuckle a flight, even though the months leading up to it were full of panic attacks, sleepless nights, canceling, and rebooking. (And, once we landed, constant worry about the flight back.) Along with fear came self-loathing: I was defective, weak, chickenshit. Why could everyone else just do this? My last flight was in 1986, a quick and uneventful trip on the shuttle from New York to Boston. I haven't flown since.

Oh, I tried, I tried. Cognitive behavioral therapy, classes, tranquilizers, meditation, workbooks. Everything seemed to make it worse. I once got myself admitted to a Yale University airplane phobia study. My first meeting was scheduled for -- wait for it -- September 11, 2001. When the World Trade Center was falling, I was getting ready to leave for a fear-of-flying intake. Needless to say, I didn't go to the meeting. I didn't go to any subsequent meetings. I gave up, but the self-flagellation didn't stop: "Look at all the amazing experiences you could be having, you big weenie!"

So I decided to go have some. On a whim, I auditioned for a show at a community theater. Much to my surprise, I got the part, then another that involved singing and dancing (neither of which I do particularly well). All my friends asked, "Aren't you terrified?" That stopped me short. I, the Queen of Panic, had zero anxiety about -- and took much joy in -- doing something most people fear. In other words: There were things I could do that other folks couldn't! Maybe I wasn't going to see the Taj Mahal anytime soon, but how many of my friends could blithely play a 90-year-old obese ex-vaudevillian in front of an audience without an ounce of fear?

Life wasn't passing me by because I couldn't get on a plane -- it was passing me by because I was obsessing about what I couldn't do instead of rocking the things I could. "Fly or don't fly," I thought, "but don't waste another minute whining about it."

Not long after, while poking around a gift shop, I found a striated brown agate with a word engraved in it: GRATITUDE. It took my breath away. That one word distilled my shift in attitude. For me to pity myself, not to celebrate the talents, strengths, and opportunities I have -- well, that would be ungrateful. The rock now sits on my dresser. I think about its message every day. I am not my fears, and my fears are not me. My world is way bigger than that.

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