Acting in the Face of Fear

“Don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be Powerful.”

-Michelle Obama

When you first glimpsed this photo, was there even a split second where you weren’t sure if it was a dolphin or a shark?

I’ll admit that when I first saw this guy during my morning run, I felt a jolt of fear at the thought that it could be a shark, even though I know how far-fetched it would be to find one swimming in Tampa Bay.

I don’t know about you, but I always have this moment of panic when I see a fin in the water. Living near the coast of Florida where dolphins are pretty ubiquitous, you can imagine how often this happens. And yet, I still think about sharks every single time I see a benign dolphin surfacing for air. Can I blame Jaws? I guess so, but I’m also fairly certain I’ve never watched the movie in its entirety. To be honest, just seeing the cover at my local Blockbuster when I was little was enough to give me nightmares for days.

Yes, I’m aware sharks don’t have blow holes like this dolphin’s.

After the irrational fear of sharp-toothed sea monsters dissipated, I stood in awe of this dolphin and another one down the way. They both seemed to be following the same loops, like a pre-set track. First they darted directly toward the seawall, then they turned on a dime to continue jetting along before pivoting abruptly back out into the open water. After watching a few runs through the course, I finally realized they weren’t taking joy rides; these dolphins were hunting.

The intelligent mammals were tracking and the corralling fish into the shallower, rocky water near the wall, then chasing them down the side until they could snatch one up to devour just beneath the surface. I know this because right after I took the photo below, I saw the dolphin careen out with a fish dangling in its mouth. Unfortunately, my timing with the camera wasn’t as precise as their hunting skills, so I wasn’t able to capture that thrilling moment.

Assuming fish have feelings, they would definitely have good reason to fear this guy.

After enjoying a nature show in the bay, I finally stopped using the dolphins as an excuse to rest and began running home. Almost immediately, though, a large seabird flying overhead caught my attention. It was a majestic osprey, its white and gray checkered wings spread wide as it soared through the air. Its talons were grasping a sizable fish with scales that shined brilliantly, like individual tiny mirrors flashing in the bright blue sky. Apparently, everyone was hunting that morning.

Although I admittedly tend to look for signs in the world and often feel the need to investigate the significance of those signs, I didn’t need to do any questionable Googling this time. The universe/God/whatever was very clear in its message to me that morning: it’s time to hunt. Or, in other words more applicable to those at the top of the food chain, the time has come to take action.

We all face personal and collective fears, and they both feel especially acute right now. As different parts of the country start to re-open, it feels like we can no longer hide behind the excuses and “wait and see” mindset that sheltering in place offered us. We were being good citizens by deliberately choosing inaction to flatten the curve, not because we were paralyzed with fear, right?

But now, as the reality sets in that sitting still and hunkering down won’t continue to be an option in the near future, the real fear starts to descend. Change is never easy, but widespread change fatigue presents a unique new hurdle that it seems we all will be dealing with for the foreseeable future. So, how do we handle this?

The beans in my garden have had no qualms about taking action and springing forth this week.

Seeing the dolphin laughing as it snagged a fish and the osprey happily carrying the fruits of its morning hunt made me believe that the answer is action. During different parts of this quarantine, it felt like quiet reflection and patience would be most beneficial, but now the universe seems to be telling me that I need to carpe diem and put all of my effort into traversing the most discernible path available.

In trying to take action and feel our way through this fog we all find ourselves in, where can we look for guidance to not only survive our constantly changing world, but also find our purpose in the midst it?

The first person who came to mind for me is someone brave, someone who has withstood more personal and public challenges than most will ever have to face in their lives. Regardless of your political leanings, you probably know Michelle Obama as a tenacious, hardworking person. However, if you don’t know her backstory yet, you might not know how unexpected her life in politics was for her, and how she persevered in spite of her reluctance and unwanted public scrutiny. This week, we will examine how Michelle Obama’s fight to find her purpose may help us take action to find ours.

Official portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama by Chuck Kennedy

Michelle Obama was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, where her father worked for the city water plant and her mother was a homemaker-turned-secretary. They lived in the upstairs apartment of a duplex owned by her great aunt, a stern woman who gave Obama piano lessons as a child.

When Obama was young, she aspired to be a pediatrician. In her captivating memoir, Becoming (which I understand is now the basis of a Netflix special), she says that this desire was mostly motivated by the positive reinforcement she received when she told adults that she was going to be pediatrician when she grew up. However, once she was in school, Obama was convinced her math and science aptitudes weren’t high enough to pursue a career in medicine, so she changed her course.

Credit: Obama for America

Around that time, her father’s health began to suffer, and he began walking with a limp. This was the first sign of what would later be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the nervous system. In the years that followed, Obama witnessed the slow, steady physical decline of her hardworking father, a man whose utility was a great source of pride.

Her family had no idea when the pain started, because her father did not show his discomfort until his body gave him no choice. He continued working at the plant even after the disease made it nearly impossible for him to move without severe pain. Throughout her childhood, Obama bore witness to her father’s dogged determination to move forward in spite of inevitable fears about his health, his ability to support his family, and his future.

After middle school, Obama attended the first magnate high school in Chicago, which required a three-hour round-trip commute and placed her in competition with many of the most impressive students in the city. When faced with these new challenges, she responded by working harder and longer to prove to herself and everyone around her that she was good enough to be there. It paid off, as she followed in her older brother’s footsteps by being accepted to Princeton.

Credit: Obama for America

At Princeton, Obama experienced blatant racism, an unfamiliar culture of elitism, and a nagging fear that she was accepted on her brother’s reputation instead of her own merits. Nevertheless, she responded to these fear-inducing situations with action, studying diligently and excelling in her classes as a result.

Once she neared the completion of her degree in sociology, Obama wasn’t thinking of her purpose and how to best fulfill it. Instead, she says, “I was a box-checker–marching to the resolute beat of effort/result, effort/result–a devoted follower of the established path…I wasn’t particularly imaginative in how I thought about the future, which is another way of saying I was already thinking about law school.”

“You live…by the code of effort/result, and with it you keep achieving until you think you know the answers to all the questions–including the most important one. Am I good enough? Yes, in fact I am.

-Obama

Obama was then accepted to Harvard Law School. As she explained in her memoir, “I was driven not by logic but by some reflexive wish for other people’s approval…Professors, relatives, random people I met, asked what was next for me, and when I mentioned I was bound for law school–Harvard Law School, as it turned out–the affirmation was overwhelming.”

Obama was also successful in law school, earning high marks and receiving an offer to join a high-end firm upon graduation. At 25, she found herself making more money than her parents ever made with all the perks of a corporate law career: an assistant, a fancy car, and Armani suits. And yet, something felt wrong. Obama wasn’t passionate about her work, and she knew she was not called to it like her colleagues seemed to be.

“This may be the fundamental problem with caring a lot about what others think: It can put you on the…my-isn’t-that-impressive path–and keep you there for a long time.”

-Obama

After working for the firm a few years (during which time she met her future husband, who was a summer associate at the time), Obama was miserable. One memorable day, she shared with her mother, a woman who had worked the same job for nine years to pay for her daughter’s college tuition, that she was extremely unhappy with her job and chosen career. Her mother urged her to “make…money first and worry about [her] happiness later.”

Obama took her mother’s advice and refrained from taking any kind of drastic action, and six months later she unsurprisingly remained unfulfilled. Around that time, she also finally convinced her father to see a doctor after his throat began to swell. Shortly after he saw the doctor, her father suffered a heart attack and passed away. Obama was only 27 years old when she lost her father.

Credit: Michelle Obama/Twitter

Soon after her father passed, she lost a close friend to cancer. Obama decided then that life was too short to remain in a state of misery, and she began reaching out to all of her contacts. Eventually, she landed a job working for a nonprofit. Obama found this new career path rewarding, as she became even closer to her community and felt like she was making a difference in her hometown. In the process, she also gained invaluable experience in local politics.

She and Barack were married a year after her father’s passing. Although she knew he had loftier aspirations than a simple career in law, Obama didn’t fully appreciate the extent of Barack’s dreams until much later on. While she gained her footing in a nonprofit executive role, he was still teaching and practicing civil rights law. His volunteer work for an organization that urged under-represented people to vote garnered attention from state politicians, who asked him to run for a seat in Congress.

Credit: Obama-Robinson family archives

Obama wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of her husband becoming a politician. As she wrote, “I didn’t much appreciate politicians and therefore didn’t relish the idea of my husband becoming one.” She was a reluctant to become a politician’s wife in principal, and she certainly didn’t see it as a way to pursue her own purpose.

Of course, we know that Barack pursuing his own purpose through politics meant that she did become a politician’s wife. However, Obama continued on in her nonprofit career even as her husband quickly climbed the political ladder. She took a position with the University of Chicago that focused on breaking down barriers and connecting students more closely with the local community, something she was thrilled to work towards. However, during this time, Obama also began wondering about her life’s purpose again: “[S]ome of the old questions about who I was and what I wanted to be in my life were starting to drift in again, fixing themselves at the forefront of my mind.”

Callie Sell/Aurora Photos

At this point, she and Barack were trying to start a family, and it “wasn’t going well.” Obama endured a miscarriage before she and Barack decided to pursue in-vitro fertilization. Barack was already in the throes of politics with a jam-packed schedule, so Obama had to inject the medications and show up for monitoring appointments by herself. She described the fear and frustration of the entire process and recalled a moment where she questioned her path: “Did I want it? Yes, I wanted it so much. And with this, I hoisted the needle and sank it into my flesh.” Even in her personal life, Obama approached obstacles with an enviable resolve.


“Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.”

-Obama

We pretty much know how Obama’s story proceeds from there. She becomes First Lady of the United States (the first FLOTUS of color) and uses her office to create programs aimed at improving the health and nutrition of children. She also becomes a political force of nature in her own right, prompting calls for her to run for president after her husband’s second term ended. And now, Obama uses her voice and resources to advocate for the causes she cares about most, which primarily focus on bettering the lives of young women.

Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton

Michelle Obama’s purpose of empowering others, especially young women and girls, by serving as a role model could not have been fulfilled had she remained paralyzed by the many fears in her life: fears about not being good enough because of her experiences in school, fears about mortality because of her father’s illness, and fears about entering into politics because of her preconceived notions about politicians. Instead of sitting still and waiting for the answers to come to her, however, Obama took action and came to her own conclusions.

For this reason, I think the primary takeaway from Michelle Obama’s purpose-driven life is that at some point, you have to set your fears aside and move forward, even if the road you take isn’t exactly “right.”

Obama’s willingness to keep going was critical to finding and living her dharma, but she didn’t do so blindly. She coupled her perseverance with the bravery to change course when the road came to a dead end. We know now that those dead end roads gave her pivotal experiences and knowledge that were invaluable when she reached the “right” destination, but it took courage to adapt and purposefully change her path when it didn’t feel right to her.

So, the other lesson I think we can learn from her journey is that taking action and choosing a road doesn’t mean you must take it forever.

Even if we can’t see it now, I do think that our “dead end roads” will also somehow lead us to our “right” destinations. We just have to summon the courage to take steps forward, even when the fog is heavy and the road uncertain.

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