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As You Age, Are You More Scared or Less? One Woman’s New Fearlessness

Jeannie Ralston offers two reasons she could be getting less anxious as she gets older.

“Don’t tell me you rode your bike here?” my lunching partner asked when I arrived at the restaurant in midtown Manhattan carrying a bike helmet.

“Sure I did” I said, fluffing my hair, which I was certain looked flat from its time under the foam headgear. “A bike is the best way to get around the city.”

“You’re crazy,” she responded as we were led to our table. “I mean, I used to ride my bike in the city, but I wouldn’t ever do it now.”

I couldn’t come up with one instance when I had been truly scared in the past couple of years—besides election night 2020.

I told her I thought bike riding in New York was safer and easier than ever, with the ubiquitous bike sharing stations and the protected bike lanes. “I feel less scared now than before,” I said, referring to the stretch of years I spend in the city in my 20s.

“Maybe I’m just becoming a weenie as I get older,” she said as the hostess gave us our menus.

It occurred to me then that the opposite was true for me: I feel more fearless. On my ride back to my apartment after lunch (when I probably should have been concentrating on the road better), I tried to think of what scared me these days—by that I mean on a personal basis, apart from the general terror that hangs over our world at the moment. I surprisingly only had a few things on my list.

I can think of two main reasons for my relative freedom from fear.

Read More: Instead of “You Don’t Look Your Age,” This is the Compliment I’d Rather Hear

Playing With House Money

For 20 something years, my baseline was dread. Truly. “Underneath everything, I’m terrified. Always terrified,” I once confessed to a friend. Why? Because I was raising children, and I knew I would never survive if something happened to them.

One thing you realize when you have kids is that there is a fate worse than your own death. It is the death of your children. The thought of such a dire event would make me nauseous.

“Underneath everything, I’m terrified. Always terrified,” I once confessed to a friend.

At the same time, I knew I had to be extra careful with my own life. I could only imagine the torment that my sons would endure if they lost their mother. I had to protect myself so that I could be there to get them to adulthood.

Now, the boys are launched and living on their own as productive citizens. Of course, I’ll always worry about them getting hurt or worse, but I know at my core that this is completely out of my control. It always was to some degree, but protecting them in their growing up years was job number one.

Released from the daily dread and confident that they would thrive even if I wasn’t in the picture, I feel emboldened, willing to take risks like cycling through midtown Manhattan or jumping off cliffs or bombing down a black diamond ski run trying to keep up with a young friend, even though I have knee issues. OK, that wasn’t brave, just really stupid.

A friend described my situation as “playing with house money.” I’ve had a satisfying career, I had a good marriage for almost three decades, and I’ve successfully completed the child-rearing thing. I guess he was saying I had nothing to lose now. I actually liken this chapter to gravy, an extra treat on the main meal that has been the bulk of my life.

Building Benchmarks

One of the good things about living this long and going through any number of setbacks is that all of us have reference points that remind us of how much we can handle. Going in for a job interview? No problem, after you survived that one in your 20s where you spilled coffee on the desk. How could it be worse than that?

Being the plus one at a weekend house party where you don’t know anyone but the one you’re “plussing?” Piece of cake because you’ve chatted up people both dull and delightful on many occasions. In my case, I always remember the time I got snowed in with an obnoxious date at a fraternity reunion weekend. I bonded with another woman who didn’t like her date and we are still friends today.

I told myself if I could survive this I could survive anything.

We’ve all heard the line, “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It’s too bad it’s treated as an eye-rolling cliché because it’s completely true. The way a bad situation makes you stronger is it shows you what you’re capable of and that knowledge will (or should) reside deep in your psyche. That’s what I tell my sons over and over, any time they are anxious. For example, I recently said to my youngest before he started at a new company: “You’ve had many first days on the job and hasn’t it always worked out?”

When I was in college, I interviewed the university president. I was writing for the school newspaper and it was going to be my big story. But he was dismissive of me, gave insufficient answers, and even challenged my questions. I wasn’t prepared to defend my ground, and I shakily got through our talk. Then afterward, I found out that my tape recorder had malfunctioned. I somehow salvaged the story (it wasn’t the blockbuster I was hoping for), but for years after that I used this as a benchmark of how bad things could be and told myself if I could survive this I could survive anything. So snotty Dr. Holderman served a good purpose.

One area I have no experience in—and hope I never do—is dealing with a grave illness, my own or of a loved one. I’ll have to rely on other bits of accumulated self-knowledge if that every comes my way. But I have lost a parent and I did go through a shocking divorce last year, when I lost my home, dogs, and significant financial security. Though I didn’t have an antecedent for either, I made it through with the extraordinary support of family and friends and now feel freer and more prepared for the dark twists life invariably serve up (or I sure hope I am).

Maybe that’s what makes all the difference—having a good support network. It’s just possible that this new fearlessness is a result of finding out that so many people have my back.

Read More: Instead of a 30th Wedding Anniversary, a New Beginning

By Jeannie Ralston


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