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Heroic Fear, Foolishness, and Creative Ecstasy



To begin, I offer you two words: 


Atychiphobia. Kakorrhaphiophobia. 


Dive into them past the vague gloss of vowels and consonants as we are wont to do with unknown words; say them aloud, and you will find that they roll off the tongue rather resonantly. If words have umami, they’ve got it. And a certain onomatopoeia, too, as they are both words for the fear of failure, and induce a slight twang of fear about pronouncing them correctly.


Atychiphobia springs from Ancient Greek tuche for luck, with that quiet negating prefix “a,” meaning, literally, fear of misfortune. Kakorrhaphiophobia emerges from the Greek kakos, meaning “evil or bad;” the same root as the word cacophony.


Specifically, this fear is rooted in the fear of embarrassment and ridicule. It is not simply a worry about misfortune, but instead, a projection of the cacophony of scornful laughter that echoes when we have publicly failed, whether in our imagination or reality. Some etymological thought connects atychiphobia with an Old French word for scorn that means to literally “break off someone’s horns.” This is the fear of being made smaller and powerless, of being laughed at, and ultimately being seen as a fool.


For people who are stricken with an extreme form of these phobias, they can become crippling barriers to almost any action. Few of us are completely immune, even if not haunted by clinical levels of phobia. Feeling foolish is a particularly powerful invitation to shame, and can too often keep us from exploring, daring, or creating.


The archetypal hero seems to be the antithesis of this fear, and this foolishness, at least at first glance. To be heroic is, most often, imagined to be confident, and competent, and conquering. However, in the manner of archetypes that contain their opposites, even mythic heroes struggle with whether they want to be heroic. One of the steps Joseph Campbell articulates in the hero’s journey is a refusal of the call to adventure.


In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell suggests that what might keep a potential hero from answering the call to his or her journey are the tendrils of an ordinary life, entwining with a stasis that dulls the sound of the call. He writes:


Often in actual life, and not infrequently in the myths and popular tales, we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered for it is possible to turn the ear to other interests. Walled in boredom, hard work, or “culture,” the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved.


While boredom, or hard work, or culture might be convenient excuses to turn away from adventure, I believe that they are actually camouflage for something deeper: fear of failure. Atychiphobia. Kakorrhaphiophobia. 


How often do we turn away from a true desire because we convince ourselves that we have something more important to do? Even though that “something important” is ultimately small and prosaic? “I can’t turn to write the article I’m enticed by because I need to clean my oven.” (As an aside, I bought oven cleaner today.) That is the responsible choice: work before pleasure. Commitments before audacity. Even though we are ultimately dulled by that choice, we can relax into feeling virtuous, and silence our desires.


But, if we tug apart the instinct for the seemingly principled, unselfish choice a bit further, what lies underneath it is fear. Fear that we will not succeed. And that we will be a fool to even try, and the world will laugh at us as we fall on our face. So we clean our ovens, refusing the call to be something grander than ourselves, and lose our opportunity to bring gifts and insights back to our communities.  


While few of us are likely to strap on swords and quest after a mythic challenge, one of the most literal calls to action we can feel is the urge to create. As we struggle with the journey of making—be it a dance, a piece of writing, a business—we brush up against the metaphors of the hero’s journey. To answer the call of the imagination, we must find the courage to push past the fear of ridicule.


Several years ago, rather awestruck as a former modern dancer, I interviewed choreographer Twyla Tharp for a radio show I hosted. We talked about what makes good art, and specifically, good dance. She was passionate that modern dance should be about courage and audacity, echoing painter Henri Matisse’s aphorism, “creativity takes courage.”


She continued: “Modern dancers should be doing things no one else is doing, and it should come from the gut. Desire is the first thing a modern dancer should have. Skill can be developed. But if you don't have desire as a modern dancer, forget it.''


In The Ecstasy of Being, as he is critiquing modern dance that fails at its goals of transcendence, of the expression of “life-power, life-courage, and the ecstasy of being,”  by becoming overly intellectualized, Campbell asks irascibly, “who can but wonder why our dancer has to be letting the insipidities of her unimpressive brain come between the fountain source of her genius and the marvel of that all-expressive body on which she has been laboring the better part of her life?”


I think, in that connection between the intuition of the body and creativity, both Tharp and Campbell begin to articulate how we might find that audacity. 


What breaks open when we answer the call to create, leaving rationality behind, and instead follow our guts into that call when we are making? Rather than heroically defying our fear of scorn, we instead embrace it? While the cool Apollonian discipline of technique and structure underpin creativity, art begins to articulate, as Campbell says, the “ecstasy of being” only when it opens up into the irrational. When it celebrates, like Erasmus, the delights of folly. 


Our metaphoric heroism becomes Dionysian at that moment, sensory and uninhibited, and genuinely fearless. The fool in his fullest form has no fear of laughter, but instead evokes and invites it. In that moment we can, as Robert Johnson says in Ecstasy: Understanding the Psychology of Joy, we are ex stasis—standing outside oneself: “If I say, ‘I am ecstatic! I am simply beside myself!’ I mean that I am filled with an emotion too powerful for my body to contain or my rational mind to understand. I am transported to another realm in which I am able to experience ecstasy.” (25)


For me, this is one of the most tangible ways that we might enter into the mythic power of the archetypal hero: by entering into the metaphor of a foolish hero as we create, savoring all that evokes; that is truly answering the call. And if we’re very lucky, it might just grant the boon of ecstasy for those who meet what we create.


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