It was a little more than eight years ago when my first Fearless Parenting column appeared in the Brooklyn Paper. And ever since, the idea — which began as a conversation with a former editor of the Paper on the sidelines of a baseball game — has inspired (almost) biweekly columns featuring such random thoughts on child rearing as how your kids know when your marriage hits the skids (that one got the neighborhood talking), and how my young ones — both boys — loved my boobs (another reader favorite).
But as my older son gets ready to head off to college, I find myself facing the reality of losing half of my column’s main source material. And, more seriously, I am realizing how many of the lessons learned in my near decade of writing about raising kids have not only made me a better parent, but a more thoughtful human, too. Looking back, the same takeaways have appeared in my columns again and again: trust yourself; be flexible; pay attention; enjoy life.
That realization, coupled with the fact that my days with sons under my roof are numbered, got me wondering: How can I use those mantras to keep making the most of my time on this earth — and the relationships I have made during it — even as my role as a parent takes a back seat?
Then it hit me: Expand the brand of parenting that I’ve promoted all these years to the more encompassing terrain of living life in general. Fearless Living, yes! A new column that both explores the fulfillment found when one confronts life and all its complexities head on, and shares the many examples of how to trust, be flexible, pay attention, and try to enjoy every moment.
But can I really offer any guidance on how to live fearlessly? Me, the girl who once slept with the hall light on, and was deathly afraid to walk into the back of the house if everyone else was in front?
The answer, of course, is yes, because this “girl” is now almost 50. She has lived through some things, to say the least, and she is no longer afraid of the dark.
But my current ‘fearlessness’ has been hard won. It has been learned firsthand (as all good lessons are), through situations I could not have predicted, many of which I would not necessarily have chosen — if I had a choice. Figuring my way through the more challenging of those ordeals, however, has taught me that I am actually a lot tougher than I thought I was (or than the nurses in my schools thought I was when I sought treatment for ant bites, or period cramps, lying down on their paper-covered cots.)
One of the simplest, most fearless things I do regularly is talk to strangers. And by this I do not mean that I ask them, please, for a coffee. I mean I really talk to strangers — whether twenty-somethings splitting a spliff in the park, or older, bearded art teachers staring at nudes at the Met. I ask them directly and honestly what they think. And I offer up my own real opinions, no holds barred. I do it so often, I’ve started a podcast called “Talking to Strangers,” and made a few YouTube videos with cool folks I’ve chatted up around town.
People keep asking me why I do this, and why I feel the need to talk about it. And I guess it has something to do with the amazing things that have happened to me because of my ability and desire to ditch my comfort zone, and engage on a deep level with people I don’t know at all.
I credit strangers, for instance, with teaching me more about myself than I could ever have learned by staying home and staring in the mirror. And self-awareness, whether in parenting or simply living, is key. If you cannot explore your mind and what is going on up there, you risk relegating yourself to becoming an innocent bystander to what could be a beautiful life. Such a life is far easier to achieve if you can see yourself clearly, with less shame and judgment.
People we don’t know often provide just the window we need into to ourselves. In describing myself for the first time to an interested stranger, I am often surprised by what phrases jump out, what beliefs I espouse — some I’ve never consciously recognized until that moment when the words tumble out of my mouth in front of a person I’ve never met. And after revealing my opinions, the stranger often compels me to expose myself further by of course asking, “Why?”
I rarely question my thoughts myself, nor do those living in my my Park Slope bubble with me who have come to take my strangeness in stride. But, facing a stranger’s eyes, and the regard or disregard I might find there, I am forced to reckon with myself and grapple with my beliefs. Reckoning is hard, and grappling, by definition, is a struggle. But, as Socrates said long before I, it is in the examining and discovery of ourselves that life can be its richest.
Talking to strangers is just one of the habits I’ve found helps me to live fearlessly. Of course, talking — I mean really talking, honestly — to members of one’s own family, and, even more importantly, to ourselves, helps too.
I look forward to using this column as a space to share other revelations found from practicing those truths — trust yourself; be flexible; pay attention; enjoy life — that helped me parent, and in general to live, more fearlessly. I certainly expect that will include inspiring stories about how people find joy in their own lives, but also frank confrontations of problems that can leave others feeling joyless.
Fearless Living, after all, is all about expressing oneself in a true way, and the trust that others will be flexible and understanding, whether they share your feelings or not. It is about being attentive to the world and the people around you, and finding a positive perspective even as you stare directly into something seemingly scary, or dangerous. It is about finding a passion for life, taking each day as it comes, and taking each person as he or she is.
Putting myself out there is often a risk to be sure, but one I’ve found is worth the rewards of making a connection, learning about myself, and proving I am capable. Straightforwardness has worked pretty well for me as a parent, and time will tell how it plays out over this next chapter of my life. I hope you’ll keep reading to find out.
Stephanie Thompson’s “Talking to Strangers” podcast can be found on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play.