Columnist’s Note: This reprint from four years ago was unusually long even for me, so it’s been edited for length, but it otherwise remains unchanged, as do my feelings about the scary, possibly fire-breathing, unknown.
Today, I believe, I will write about dragons.
You read that right. Dragons. Big fire-breathing lizard-things with spiky tails and hoards of treasure. Dragons.
Now, I am apparently one of only fourteen people in America who has never seen “Game of Thrones,” but since I don’t live under a rock, I do at least know that dragons are hot right now.
It makes sense in a way. For centuries, dragons have represented our fears. They are an amalgam of all the really scary alpha predators, with enormous claws and haunches like the big cats and leathery skins like the big water predators (hippos, for instance, which look cute, but are very, very dangerous), and most importantly, the heads of snakes, which some biologists think might be an evolutionary fear, like the fear of falling, which babies are born with.
And, as every child knows, they breathe fire, and the fear of fire is almost certainly an evolutionary fear.
And we live, unfortunately, in fearful times. Fear is our constant companion. As a member of the press, I take some responsibility for this. Drama makes the best stories, which means rarer and scarier events are disproportionately represented in the media—all media, even fiction.
If you die in a house fire, we will brave almost any impediment to be there, to cover the story. But you are more than 200 times more likely to die from heart disease or cancer. That’s why those deaths don’t qualify as news.
You’re more than 800 times more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash, but plane crashes are certainly more visually stunning. And despite what “Criminal Minds” would have you believe, your odds of being murdered by a serial killer are only six in a million. You’re almost 30 times more likely to die from air pollution.
And the truth is that it is not the “risky” things we do that tend to kill us or even hurt us. It’s not sky-diving or mountain climbing, or even base-jumping, reportedly the deadliest of the “extreme” sports.
In fact, according to the National Safety Council, the number one cause of unintentional death in America is accidentally overdosing on prescription pain pills.
But I digress.
My point is that fear can serve a useful purpose in our lives. It’s likely that more of us would die of snake bites and bee stings if we weren’t hard-wired to fear those things and therefore tried to give them a wide berth.
But we also have a tendency to fear things irrationally, especially when we don’t know enough about them.
Medieval mapmakers, who lived in a world that was still largely uncharted by any single culture, often came up against the problem of what to put in portions of a map that were, in fact, unmapped: literally uncharted territory.
They would draw there a blank space and the legend “Here There Be Dragons.” (Okay, more commonly they would simply DRAW dragons or sea serpents, but I like the phrase, as do software coders, who use it to mark particularly complex bits of code so that anyone after them knows to take care in exploring it.)
For at least 500 years, we have associated dragons with the unknown, with those threats so hidden and amorphous that they remain unexplored and thus unexplained.
It’s easier, you see, to stay on the map. If you stay on the map, you figure at least you won’t be in the land of dragons.
But if there’s one thing I have learned in my adulthood, it’s that nothing good ever happens if you don’t say yes. If you don’t go exploring, if you don’t embrace a little change, scary as it is, if you don’t make yourself vulnerable. If you don’t stare down the dragons.
Will bad things happen if you do those things? Of course.
But here’s the catch. Bad things will happen even if you don’t. You don’t have to go exploring to find dragons. They will find you, and you’re better off if you have a little experience staring them down.
When I first moved to Lexington, I was terrified to drive there. I learned to drive in Corbin and took my driver’s test in Williamsburg. I had no idea how to negotiate Nicholasville Road. But the first job I was offered was as a courier, of all things, and I took it.
And I learned to drive in Lexington, and to do it pretty well. But for months, I was afraid every time I got into the car. And every time I did it and survived, I felt a little better about myself, a little stronger, a little more competent. Some bad things happened. I got lost. I got stuck. I got some dings and some curb rash.
And much the same can be said of every relationship I’ve ever had. I’ve got some dings and some curb rash on my heart too. And I bet the same can be said of most people. I’ve been lost and stuck there too.
But every time I survived I felt a little better about myself, a little stronger.
There were dragons in the territories I hadn’t explored yet, but I was as good as them.
Which brings me to a quote that I memorized nearly 25 years ago. It’s from Rainer Maria Rilke, and it comes to me now, like a loyal dog, whenever I am afraid.
“We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.”