PORTER: Can facing our fears make us stronger?

Portrait shot of Janine di Giovanni and her son Luca Portrait shot of Janine di Giovanni and her son Luca

photography by Rannjan Joawn courtesy PORTER magazine

I love meeting people with substance especially those with a story to tell. In PORTER magazine I read ‘Can facing our fears make us stronger?’ by Janine di Giovanni. I loved it so much I had to share it with you …


I started my career during the siege of Sarajevo. I remember so well the first night I slept in that sorrowful city that my body seems to have its own embedded physical memory. There were bombs crashing outside and the constant sound of machine gun fire. There were no windows, an explosion had blown them out. Instead, plastic covered the frames. There were no blanket, and the furniture was scarred with bullet holes. So I lay in bed and did the only thing I knew how to do – I prayed.

I prayed for basic things; not to get shot; not to lose a limb like so many people I saw wandering the streets of Sarajevo; but most of all I prayed for the strength to get me through the most difficult weeks of my life.

Eventually, as one always does, I calmed down and fell asleep. More importantly, I had made it through the moment, which meant I could get through anything.

Suddenly I was braver and stronger than I thought.

We are all afraid of something, this much I know. Fear is a universal human trait. We fear loneliness, ageing, ugliness, irrelevance, poverty. It’s how we deal with fear, and how much we let it stand in the way of doing what we really want that makes us unique. I try to visualise fear, to see it as a physical object, an opaque grey curtain blowing in a breeze, something I need to pass through. Sometimes I see it as a giant bear, with paws up and terrifying teeth. I have to, because I live by that old line of Henry Thoreau’s that I don’t want to get to the end of my life and realise that I had not lived.

Fear is such a random thing. If I make a list of things I am afraid of, they seem ridiculous but not unusual: big, hairy spiders; vampires; serial killers; train wrecks; and lately, the Ebola virus. Then there are my more irrational ones: the dark, dead people, ghosts. But more than anything, I am afraid of the future, that vast unknown where anything can happen.

Then there are the emotional fears, the ones that grip you in the middle of the night, when you sit up at 4am, the hour between darkness and light, wondering how you can possibly go on with your life with so much dread and worry inside you. The hour of the wolf, as the French call it. 

Often the more frightening moments in life are linked with departures: leaving a safe place. It’s the hardest thing to do. That feeling of free-falling. Leaving relationships that have become corrosive, even if you know it is the right thing to do, is the most frightening. I know plenty of people who stay in unhappy relationships, sexless marriages, where partners sleep separately, or endure their spouses’ endless liaisons. They don’t leave. They can’t. There are children, money, property. There is being single and 40. There is too much to fear to contemplate separating.

Other people, often those close to us, can be a powerful example when trying to overcome a fear. She won’t like that I’m writing this, but my sister has lived with crippling phobias all her life. She is acutely claustrophobic. She won’t fly, take lifts, drive over bridges or go through tunnels. To her infinite regret, her fears have dominated her entire life. She has tried to overcome them, but she just can’t push through the curtain. Although she has improved with time, she has a terrible habit of reading the most grisly newspaper accounts of murders, abuse, rape, etc, out to me, so I will feel hampered by what a dangerous place the world really is. She means to be protective, but it has the opposite effect. Fear is catching.

Reflecting back, the scariest things haven’t been the wars I reported, the time I was alone inside Chechnya as Grozny was falling, or when I nearly got raped in Zimbabwe, but the times when I realised that I had to push through the emotional curtain, and walk past the bear. Like taking decisions you know will affect you for years to come. Should I try for a different job? What if I fail ? Who will I love? Will I die alone?

Brave to me are people who endure chemotherapy or manage to cope with chronic disease while still living their lives. Brave is someone standing up to authority and knowing the consequences. Brave are people who stand up to everyday bullies, as in the case of 23 year old Tugce Albayrak, who after protecting two teenage girls from three men who were harassing them was fatally attacked. Brave was my father, when I drove him to his cancer treatment, and he stoically told me: “I’m not going to let cancer kill me!” (Sadly, six months later, it did.)

When you decide to be brave, unknown things happen. “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Do it now.” – quoted from a Sufi in Pakistan.


Cover issue 7v2

“To see the full article, buy the latest issue of PORTER, now on sale globally and available as a Digital Edition, or go tohttps://portersubscription.net-a-porter.com/?prom=PTRFN 

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