Excerpt from Worth It, Chapter 5
I am not claiming to be an expert on fear, but I have passed out on a ride (that shall not be named) at Disneyland that my friends assured me “was not that scary.” In the photo they take on the ride, everyone is screaming with their hands up, and I look like I am asleep on some sort of antigravity machine. My arms and head are just floating weightlessly (because I am unconscious). My body hates heights. It’s a fairly irrational fear, but I have quite a few of those. For example, as long as I can remember I have been inexplicably (but also, understandably) afraid of clowns. When I was younger and would turn off the lights in my room before bed, I would look over at the closet, and somehow the shape of my clothes seemed legitimately suspicious. My first thought was always, There’s a clown in my closet. How? Why? How long has the clown been hiding in there? Of course, if I had stopped to think about those things long enough, I would have realized that no, my clothes did not turn into a scary clown when I turned off the lights, and yes, I was perfectly safe on this ride at Disneyland that also had a seven-year-old on it. This is what we call irrational fear. On the other hand, we have some rational fears. I’m afraid that if I ask this person out on a date, they might say no—rational. I’m afraid that if I run for student body president, I might lose—rational. I’m afraid that if I’m vulnerable with others, they might reject me—rational.
I lived so much of my life with a destabilizing fear of vulnerability. When it came to living openly and sharing myself with the people around me, I just felt paralyzed. I was in college the first time I went to therapy. (I went because it was free. If you are reading this and you are in college, please take advantage of free therapy. You will not regret it.) I remember telling my therapist that I was afraid that if people knew everything about me, they wouldn’t like me anymore. I wasn’t yet aware of my own sexuality, and to be honest, I didn’t even know what I was so afraid people might find out. I just knew that I liked being liked, and I didn’t want to jeopardize that.
I started to work through these fears and eventually learned that, while vulnerability is most certainly a risk, it is also totally worth it. (Thanks, Brené Brown.) And so I began to try to live my life more openly. As I became more open—to both others and myself—who I really was began to emerge. And you know what’s scarier than thinking a clown is in your closet? Finding yourself in the closet.
Let’s talk about fear a little bit. I have heard people say that fear is a liar. I get that some of our fears aren’t based in reality but only the false narratives we’ve been led to believe. But we also have fears that are real. In either case, I don’t know if fear is as much a liar as it is a captor. Some fears are real, but we have the choice about whether to let those fears hold us captive. Many times in my life, the things I was afraid of have actually happened. And you know what? I survived anyway. Those times have taught me so much about what fear really is.
I don’t believe that fear is ever something you can escape. I don’t think there is a point of arrival where you become a person without fear, and I don’t think there is nothing to be afraid of in life. I simply think we can choose to let fear control us or we can move through our fear.
One of my deepest fears, for as long as I could remember, was that there would be something about me that people wouldn’t like. Maybe, more accurately, I was worried I would be a poor reflection of the people around me, mostly my family. I always wanted to make sure that people knew how great my parents were or how kind my siblings are. I always wanted to be a good reflection of the work my parents put in to raise me. I never wanted to give people a reason to not like me or to think less of me, so being gay was truly a shitstorm of all my fears breeding with one another.
I remember trying to tell myself that maybe the things I was afraid of weren’t real or weren’t going to really happen. Maybe all of the conservative Christian people I knew would magically change what they thought about gay people because of me. Maybe I was just funny and charismatic enough to avoid any and all pushback. Maybe there was some way to come out while being a female pastor at a megachurch and still somehow emerge magically unscathed. It sounded ridiculous then, and it sounds ridiculous now. Change costs us, fear is real, but even when everything you fear happens, the person you’ll become on the other side of those fears is a fuller version of yourself.
On top of all of my fears of wanting to be liked or wanting my family to be liked, I had a deep-seated fear of not being loved by God. I believed that the love of God was unconditional, the only constant, and being loved by God felt like the only thing people around me couldn’t control. And yet, that love also felt deeply tied to certain people’s approval of me. It felt like somehow pastors and church elders were handing out tickets for God’s love, but you had to meet all the requirements first, like, “Must be this tall to ride,” “Keep your hands and arms inside the car at all times,” and “Do not be gay.” It felt like even if you believed in your heart that God loved you, that didn’t matter unless some kind of spiritual leader corroborated your story. If I was the only person who thought God loved me, was that even real? How would I know it was real? My confidence in God’s love for me, for better or for worse, had mainly come from other people telling me it was true. Now I was on my own to figure it out. Instead of hearing endless affirmation of God’s love for me, I was afraid I was about to hear an onslaught of voices saying the opposite. I wasn’t even sure how to start to prepare myself to face the fear that maybe God did not really love me.
On one of my last days at my megachurch job, it was one of the last times I was around all of my friends and coworkers before I came out. It happened to be a staff worship day. The band from our church played worship music, and we were free to listen, pray, and take some time to recharge ourselves spiritually. I typically would have loved a day like this—finding a spot in the back, enjoying the incredibly talented musicians, and singing along to the music. (It would have been so loud that no one would ever know how terrible I sounded—my ideal musical environment.)
On this day, I felt so terrified that I barely even made it into the room. I can still remember how all the lights were dim, the room was dark, multicolored lights shone brightly, and there was even a touch of fog for added effect. There on the stage were all of these people I had come to love singing songs about how much God loves us, and I could barely stand. I was so overcome by the fear of what was coming next. Were these songs still true for me? I stood in the back and began to cry. I cried and cried until my mouth uttered the words, “Am I okay?”
I asked honestly and desperately, “Am I okay, God?” It was such a transformative moment for me because as soon as I let myself ask the question, I felt more peace than I had felt in a long time. I felt okay. I had been so afraid of that question for so long that the simple act of allowing myself to ask it provided incredible relief. All I had to do was acknowledge my fear and allow myself to ask the hard question out loud, and I felt so much better.
I remember saying to myself, “Hold onto this. You’re going to need it.” I knew that I would need that moment for what came next. I would need that moment for the weeks following when the people in that room did try to take away my coupon for unconditional love. I would need that moment for the time when I was driving and turned on some worship music—because that is what usually calmed my heart—and then out of nowhere the worship artist said something like, “Break the chains of homosexuality.” I would need that moment when I sat with people I loved who I thought would walk with me and they told me this was not what God wanted for my life. I would need that moment for every single time someone implied I was too biased to know whether God still loved me. I needed that moment for every time every one of my fears came true.
I needed that moment, and that moment did not let me down. I needed to ask the question, I needed to find the answer, and I needed to become the person I became through all of it.
After I came out publicly and let all of the internet know, I started getting a ton of messages. A few of the most comforting messages I received were from my dad’s friend who had recently gone through a divorce and the daughter of the pastor of my childhood church. She told me about her experience with getting pregnant before she got married. They both sent me messages that said, “We get it. We know what it’s like to all of a sudden be on the outside of something that you held so close.”
My dad’s friend told me about how many people he thought would remain loyal to him but didn’t. Sarah (my childhood pastor’s daughter) said the same thing. She talked about how many friends walked away and how hard it was. But she also talked about how good her life has been. They both talked about arriving at a place with less fragility. Even though it was vulnerable and hard, they no longer felt fragile. Their identity no longer felt dependent on the opinions and expectations of others. This is the kind of knowing that can’t be taken away by any pastor, leader, friend, teacher, or anyone else.
Growing up in the church, being a pastor, and coming out is my particular story of facing my particular fears. I was afraid that I would lose friends, be thought less of, and be cast out. Your fears might be different, but they’re just as real. We all have them. We are always growing, changing, and evolving. For some of us—well, for most of us—that evolution will take us out of our neat, tight box. It is terrifying to think about all of the things that leaving that box, or being pushed outside of that box, might mean. Let me offer you this advice: if you realize that it’s a box, you have already outgrown it.
I know fear is scary. That is literally the definition of fear. But one of the gifts of fear is that it offers us opportunities that we might not have otherwise had. If I had not been pushed to my brink of fear in that dark worship space, I would still be allowing others to define for me whether I was loved by God. If I had stayed in the box that was tightly wrapped around me, I wouldn’t have the incredible family that I have today.
Listen, fear is so real. I get it. Fear is not always irrational (some fears are very rational!), and it is not always a liar (some of your fears will come true). It can be oppressive, but it can also be a gift. What if you asked yourself the questions you were most afraid to ask? What kind of answers would you get? What kind of freedom would you find? What is on the outside of the box that you are afraid to leave? What would it mean to know you are loved because you know it, not because someone told you to know it? Go into the fear, ask the question, kiss the girl, leave the job, tell the truth. It will not be easy, but, my God, is it worth it.
To learn more about Worth It by Brit Barron, click here.