Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Lost Causes, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” (play)

This is the opening track on my first album, and I vividly remember where I was and what I was doing the first time I heard it on one of the real, honest-to-goodness manufactured CDs I printed up. It’s a memory that’s lingered not only because listening to your first “real” album is usually a pretty significant personal milestone, but because the emotions it triggered were so seemingly incongruous that it confused me for a long time.

I was miserable.

I had no idea why this should be. It should have been a shining moment: After years of writing and recording, the album was finally finished, I was listening to it on a nice stereo in my brand new car, and I was driving on a last-minute errand before an album release party at a nice hotel that would culminate with me and the band playing for a room full of people. The local paper’s rock critic was even there. This was the moment I’d dreamed of…but it didn’t feel the way I thought it would. Why not?

My contributions to this song, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” are pretty terrible. My vocals are awful, and while I kind of admire the internal rhymes in the lyrics, I wish they’d been in service of something more profound than pop psychology in pursuit of getting laid. And yet listening to it now, I think it holds an inverse key to what I was feeling at the time:

Don’t be afraid of going nowhere
Sometimes we miss our mark
The light will fade — I know you don’t wanna go there
But angel, don’t be afraid of the dark

(“Angel.” What was I thinking? Groan.)

Anyway, pretty smarmy stuff. But forget about the dark. What happens when you reach the light? What happens when the universe gives you what you ask for? What do you do with it?

In my case, I froze. I did shows here and there, and continued to record for awhile, but I consistently ducked the broader responsibilities that go with truly achieving a personal goal. It’s easy to cop out with stuff like this, because nobody really expects an artist to be successful anyway — and odds are high that even if I’d used them properly, the tools at my disposal wouldn’t have been enough. But the point is that I had them, and instead of trying to figure out what to do with them, I subconsciously started backpedaling to the part where my dream still seemed unattainable.

I’m sure you can predict what happened next, because in some way or other, it’s probably happened to you. There’s nothing quite like creating an opportunity for yourself and then missing/sabotaging it. You’re only accountable to yourself in those moments, so who else really understands your shame? And who can keep you from using it to reinforce the cycle the next time you find yourself on the verge of accomplishment?

I realize I’m not saying anything new or profound here — hell, I’ve almost talked myself out of writing this at least a dozen times already. But it’s helpful to remember — for me, anyway — that it’s easy to dream. And it’s slightly less easy to do the work it takes to achieve 95 percent of that dream. But I think the hardest part is facing what happens when a dream is close to becoming reality, because it’s then that you have to answer the question: “Okay. What next?

You’ve recorded a song or an album, written a post, built a website, made a life change, shared an idea. You’ve felt the rush, the thrill that comes from creating something exciting. You’re in control. But what do you do with it? Do you keep stepping toward the light, or do you just…kind of…stop? It’s so easy to talk yourself out of taking those last few steps, and no one will ever really know how close you came.

The dark isn’t scary at all — it’s comforting. There’s no judgment there, and you can gorge yourself on hopes and dreams and wishes without ever having to prove how much you want them to come true. You never have to figure out what next. In some respects, life can be easier that way — it’s certainly less terrifying — but it comes with a certain amount of addictive restlessness. That yearning is so familiar that it can start to feel like security.

I know I’ve refused to answer what next more times than I care to admit — that whole thing with the CD release is one of the more spectacular examples, but it’s far from the only one, and I’m still doing it today. I’m a moderately successful writer who runs a moderately popular website, and I’ve achieved this largely through half measures. There are always bigger risks to take, more meaningful stories to tell — and more often than not, I talk myself into standing still.

I don’t have any magic solutions to this problem, any more than I have faith in myself to completely stop listening to those excuses. But I do know that I’ve reached the point, again, where I want my writing — and all my work — to mean something, no matter how small. I want it to feel real to me. I want to know I’ve stretched the limits of my talent, and I want other people to see it. God help me, I think I might finally want to find out what happens next.