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How to Free Yourself from the Glare


3. Ask yourself the Universal Question.

Once, I had an intense, emotional cell phone discussion with a friend while riding in a taxi. At a certain point I fell into a strangled silence.

"What's wrong with you?" my friend asked. "Why aren't you talking?"

Covering my mouth with one hand, I whispered, "The driver can hear me."

At this point, my friend said something so lucid, so mind expanding, so simultaneously Socratic and Zenlike, that I memorized it on the spot. I've gained comfort by repeating it to myself in many other situations. I encourage you, too, to memorize this question and use it when you find yourself shrinking back from an imaginary spotlight. My friend said—and I quote:

"So?"

This brilliant interrogatory challenged me to consider the long-term consequences of being embarrassed (really, who cares?). It reminded me that failing to act almost always leaves me with more regret than taking embarrassing action. Here are a few instances where the Universal Question might help a person break through imprisoning inhibitions:

"If I say what I really think, people might disagree with me."

So?

"If I leave my drunken abusive husband, his crazy family will call me a bitch."

So?

"If I go windsurfing, I'll look like a klutz. Plus, people will see my cellulite."

So?

There are endless applications for the Universal Question. I suggest using it every time you feel yourself hesitating to do something that might deepen or broaden your life. The answer to the question "So?" is almost always "Well, when you put it that way..." It pushes us into the spotlight, showing us we can survive there and freeing us to act on our best instincts.

Today, remember that what you perceive as prudent social caution is probably limiting your life to about half its natural capacity; that if you did everything you long to do twice as often, twice as boldly, twice as openly, you wouldn't attract a shred more social pressure than you already think you're getting. Consider that vaulting well past the limits of your inhibitions will probably earn you more positive attention than negative judgment. More often than not, this will work out well. If it doesn't, remember the most enlightening of questions: "So?" Little by little, you'll feel and see that the worst consequences of living in the light are less oppressive than the best advantages of hiding in the shadows. And you'll have little to fear from the rest of us, who will only be inspired by your daring as we sit, blinking and bedazzled, in the private spotlights of our own attention.

O columnist Martha Beck is the author of The Four-Day Win (Rodale).

From the July 2007 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

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