The lesson will be private. One-on-one. And the instructor, Mady, is, by all accounts, an incredibly delightful, non-intimidating person. I’ve performed on stages in front of 5000+ person crowds. I’ve spoken to hundreds of thousands of people around the US. I’ve done stand-up comedy on a stage in a country where the material I was performing could have landed me in jail, or worse.

So why am I so nervous about this?

It’s hard to ask for help. I’ve been taught not to. I’ve been told as long as I’ve been able to be told things that the last thing I should ask for is help. Part of this I can blame on my gender, and the expectations I’ve been led to accept because of it, and part of it is a purely American “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality I’ve internalized. Part of it is also likely just plain me-ness. Regardless of where it’s coming from, it’s here. And it’s loud.

Because I have to admit I’m bad at something. I wouldn’t need help if I was good enough, right? I’m good at a bunch of other things, so it would be way easier to just focus on those and not admit that I’m a disaster at this, right? And I know this from experience, because a few weeks ago in my new show I tried to sing a song I wrote for it, and it was, well, a hilarious disaster (not the intention, but hey — I rolled with it. Maybe I’ll post the footage someday, but maybe not, because…).

And that makes me feel vulnerable. And that’s terrifying. The idea of exposing myself, even just to one person (not like that — hell, that’d be easier than this), is more terrifying than getting up on stage in front of thousands doing something I know I can do. I have armor for that. Here, I not only don’t have armor, I have open wounds, and I’m going to be sitting in a room with a near-stranger pointing and poking at them.

This is entirely about singing, but it’s also entirely about anything. Anything that scares us so much we’d rather not acknowledge its existence. Anything we feel but refuse to see, to name. All of the obstacles we create that stand between us and a freer, less-encumbered us.

Brene Brown, from afar, has helped support me in taking this leap, and all the other leaps I take. Amanda Palmer, in a more direct, intimate way, has done the same. And even my soon-to-be-first-ever-singing-instructor has done a lot to make this easier:

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I’m still terrified, but I stopped letting that stop me years ago.

Today I read a fantastic interview with Bills Clinton and Gates on Wired. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, because a lot of great things were said. These are two people who lived incredible, noteworthy lives, retired, then, for no other reason than because, proceeded to start second incredible, noteworthy lives.

Because they know there are people in the world who could benefit from their help.

Because they have a short time on Earth, and want to fill that time with meaning.

Because they care about humanity.

Because they can.

Of the things I took away from the interview — that hit me the hardest — was this concept of Us and Them, often thought of us “Us versus Them.” The idea was brought up when Bill Clinton was responding to the question “Clearly, both of you are optimists. In the past few years, when it’s been tough politically and economically, has that optimism been challenged?” This was part of Clinton’s response:

The whole history of humanity is just one long battle between conflict and cooperation and between us and them. Bill Gates made the money that enabled him to do this magnificent work today, because we kept expanding the definition of us, whoever the us was, and shrinking the definition of them. Yeah, this is tough, and there are a lot of complex psychological identity questions in American politics today, aggravated by this long-stagnant economy for most people. But we’ve had a lot of periods of bitter conflict. We’re going to get through it.

And then he went on to say other wonderful things, as if he didn’t just say the most remarkable thing I’ve ever read on Wired.com (no offense, Wired).

Anthropologists will tell you that we socially evolved to be tribal creatures. As a byproduct of this, there’s this number limit (I can’t think of it off the top of my head) at which we are no longer able to effectively empathize with other humans. If 10 people tragically die, we’re able to effectively feel that pain and empathize with their loved ones. But if, say, the number increases to 500 (I don’t even think it’s close to this many) we are no longer able to process it. Our brains aren’t wired that way. We won’t even feel the empathy that we might have for 10. It’ll just wash over us.

Another byproduct of our tribal evolution is the abstract feeling of attachment to those with whom we identify — we could call these the Us. Thousands of years ago, Us meant family. We traveled in extended family packs, protecting our immediate relatives from harm, living with and from one another. Us meant blood.

As time went on, Us evolved from family, to groups of families called clans, to groups of clans called tribes, then to towns, and cities. With organized religion came a religious Us, and with the establishment of formal nation-states and borders came nationality Us.

With the evolution of Us came the evolution of Them.

The original Them was anyone who wasn’t blood related — Them was pretty much everyone. Over time, as the number of people in Us got bigger, Them got smaller. Them now might mean anyone in any other country. This is a common Them in America, and a Them that only (light use of this word) consists of 95% of the world. Another common Them in America is anyone who isn’t Christian, which is a measly 68% of the world, or roughly 4.8 Billion Thems.

In a relatively short amount of time, Us went from being a fraction of a percent of humanity and Them the rest, to some people experiencing an Us of more than two billion other people, far more than were ever alive at the onset of Us and Them.

Most people experience varying degrees of connection to a variety of the Us in their life, from their immediate family, to their tribe or town, state, country, and, if they have one, religion. Sometimes one Us conflicts with another, as in cases where national identities persecute religious identities (a Christian in Kenya; a Muslim living in the United States). Some people have no perspective of Us, and see only Them. My heart hurts for those people. And some people are constantly trying to expand their internal understanding of Us, and diminish their Them. You might call these people humanists. I am one of them (phrasing?).

Reading that interview with Bill and Bill, two people who have so much, and who have experienced so much, it is incredibly hard to think of them as an Us. They are a Them — an elite, wealthy, powerful Them. But are they? That’s the trap of Us and Them, and the ways our minds have been tricked to think after thousands of years of socio-biological evolution. We don’t need to be afraid any more. In fact, it’s that fear, that manifests in xenophobia and ethnocentrism, that is the only thing left we are justified in being afraid of.

The world is getting too small for both an Us and a Them. Us and Them have become codependent, intertwined, fixed to one another. We have no separate fates, but are bound together in one. And our fear of one another is the only thing capable of our undoing.

***

Update Nov. 14, 2013 10:47pm — I stumbled upon a mini-documentary called Overview by The Planetary Collective that does an amazing job of presenting the gist of what I talk about in this post, and left this idea even more firmly impressed upon my brain. I hope you’ll take the 20 minutes to watch this, and another couple hours to let it rattle around your mind.

I used to be terrified of any sort of public speaking. This terror was justified by my complete inability to speak to any group larger than 2 – 3. Before my first semester at Purdue, during orientation, we were always asked to introduce ourselves with our “Name, Hometown, Major” — something I couldn’t do without fumbling over my words and screwing something up. Generally, I couldn’t even get my name out correctly (the second N is silent).

I first performed stand up comedy a few weeks into my first semester. It wasn’t that I thought that I’d handle a stage, microphone, and crowd better than I did my orientation group, it was simply something I had to do, and sometimes necessity outweighs rationality. My first set was 15 minutes long (way too long) and I blacked out for about 15 minutes and 30 seconds of it. The math is off because I actually managed to black out before the emcee called my name — something I’m still proud of my brain for all these years later. I remember coming to sitting in a booth with a few of my friends who showed up to support me. “How… how did it go?” I asked, with the same wherewithal as I’d’ve had if I’d just gone head-to-head with Muhammed Ali. “You were okay,” they responded. And that was all I needed to hear. I was hooked.

Over the next year, I did stand up at least once every two weeks, and never did a set shorter than 15 minutes. Again, 15 minutes is way too long for a stand up newbie, but I didn’t know any better, and there wasn’t really a stand up “scene” at Purdue. I would perform at music open mics  (generally the only comic) where sets are much longer than at comedy open mics. I got my first paying gig six months after starting and performed my first hour within nine months, which are awesome things to happen in the first year, but the thing that sticks out for me most is none of that hogwash: it’s the first time I didn’t black out while performing.

I remember the first time I actually remembered performing my set with vivid recall. It was a day and night change from every time performing up ’til that point. Not only did I remember doing it after, but I was much more aware of my surroundings while it was happening. I could see the person in the front row who kept reaching for her drink, then laughing before she was able to take a sip, and putting it back down. She never took a sip the entire set, but attempted to a dozen times. It became a challenge: every time she raised her glass I would try to come up with a punchline that would make her laugh before she got the drink to her mouth — her, this one person in a crowd of 60. Before that set I wasn’t aware of any her, or even of any they. I was barely cognizant of me. I also wasn’t aware of the laughter, and oh the laughter! Making a room full of people laugh (and not being blacked out while it is happening) is a powerful experience. I could feel the laughter washing over me, coursing through me. It was like being tackle-hugged by 50 pandas at once while John Travolta punch-stabbed me with a 4-inch adrenaline needle.

I was still terrified of public speaking, but after feeling what it was like to have a true connection with a crowd I couldn’t not feel that again, and I’ve never blacked out while performing since. Because, well, sometimes necessity outweighs rationality.

Then I started writing

I’d been performing stand up comedy for many years, and doing my one-man show, It’s Pronounced Metrosexual, at colleges for many months, before I ever sat down at my keyboard and started writing. Don’t get me wrong: I’d written before (I knew order in the words go), but never with the intent of sharing those words with the world. Writing a paper for your professor is different from writing. And writing is scary. And writing for the internet is even scarier, because the internet is full of assholes.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my experience getting into writing was similar to my experience with stand up and public speaking.

I started out cavalierly, ignoring the fear and typing and publishing, typing and publishing, typing and publishing. While I wouldn’t black out while writing (I don’t slam scotch while writing like a “real writer” SORRY MOM), I was largely out of touch with what was happening with the things I was publishing — I was afraid to be too “in touch,” even if I didn’t realize it.

It all came crashing into saliency when I got an email from a reader stating that an article I’d written had saved his life — well, more accurately, saved him from taking his own life. Wow. That rocked me. I realized for the first time that through my writing I was connecting to people (real life human ones), not just the little numbers I saw on the analytics page go up with each new “unique visitor.” It terrified me. Up until that point, I was stuffing letters into bottles and chucking them into the ocean. Imagine someone knocking on your door, holding a wrinkled, bottle-stuff letter you never thought you’d see again, and telling you it saved their life.

For the next year, or maybe longer, I wrote with intention that I didn’t realize I was lacking before. I spent more time in the comments sections of articles I wrote, and in my inbox, discussing things with readers, learning from them, and improving my writing as a result. I slowly became more comfortable and less terrified, better prepared and more excited, in my writer skin.

Before I knew it, I found myself occupying the majority of my time writing, where before it was filled with performing, rehearsing, and working to improv my presence on stage. I became a writer! Then I wrote a book! I became an author!

How could I have ever been so scared to write? How silly is it that for the longest time I couldn’t even introduce myself to a group without fumbling over my name? How pointless to have been so overcome with fear. Never again, right? Right? Uh…

Now I’m starting a podcast and a web series

And I am petrified.

For the past year or so, people have repeatedly asked again and again and again — you know, repeatedly — when I’m going to do a podcast, or why I don’t do YouTube videos. “Because I’m a cotton-headed ninnymuggins!” I’d say, then they’d say, “Huh?” then I’d say, “Elf.” then they’d say, “Where?” then I’d say, “I’m sorry I ruined your lives and crammed eleven cookies into the VCR.”

In the past six months, I’ve tried to start a podcast or a web series many times, but it hasn’t happened. Each time I sat down to record the first episode, I came up with a bullet-proof excuse preventing me from doing so. They ranged from “need new gear” to “don’t have the time” to “I should make some hummus.”  What I realize now, with a super cool microphone sitting on my desk, looking at my calendar for November which has me in Austin for more time than I’m on the road, and having planned to record and publish my first podcast on this site today but instead I am writing this post, is that I’ve used up my final excuse: “I should write a post about why I haven’t done a podcast yet.”

I’m scared, folks. I’m scared to do a podcast and web series in the same way that I was scared to do stand up and write, back when I got started on those things. The only thing that’s different, is before I did stand up I didn’t have stand up. And before I wrote I didn’t have writing. And I needed stand up and writing, even if I didn’t know it. Now I have both of those things I need, and the terror that’s prevented me from starting a podcast and web series has been victorious because there is no necessity to outweigh rationality.

I didn’t realize it until now, as I’m writing this, that these past few months of me toeing the waters, asking my readers and friends if I should do a podcast and web series, have been me attempting to create that necessity to help myself overcome what I see as a very rational fear of this new and terrifying thing. Even right now, I’m hiding behind my keyboard, a shield that was for so long a dagger pointed in my direction itself, to prevent myself from the hypothetical blows of this new idea. So let’s solve this little “necessity” conundrum once and for all:

Tomorrow, I will record and release my first ever podcast, and on Wednesday I will record and release the first installment of my forthcoming web series. Both will be posted here, and will have a forever home in this Thought / Day project.

Shit.