Fear: A Headwind or a Tailwind

I gifted myself a 2022 subscription to the online version of The New York Times. I have avoided watching the news and reading news articles as much as possible these last few years because they usually fuel negativity in me and quite honestly, fear. The upside was reading the opinion guest essay by Amanda Gorman yesterday, “Why I Almost Didn’t Read My Poem at the Inauguration.”* She almost didn’t read her poem because she was terrified. She was scared of failing her people, her poetry. She was also terrified on a physical level. The virus was still raging and her age group couldn’t get vaccinated yet. A few weeks before, an unprecedented assault had occurred on the U.S. Capitol, the very steps where she would recite her poem. Amanda knew on that day she would become highly visible, “which is a very dangerous thing to be in America, especially if you’re Black and outspoken and have no Secret Service.” As Amanda was struggling with her decision to read her poem or not, she told herself maybe being brave enough didn’t mean lessening her fear, but listening to it. She said, “In this way, I look at fear not as cowardice, but as a call forward.”

Thomas D. Gilovich, Professor of Psychology at Cornell University, has conducted research in social psychology and behavioral economics, and has written a book about headwind/tailwind asymmetry. Headwinds are those things that work against us or hold us back. Some may be within our control (stories we tell ourselves, limiting beliefs, biases) and some may be out of our control (tragedy, racism, bigotry). Tailwinds are those things that help push us forward (blessings, talents, gifts of health and vitality). To illustrate this further, I remember when I had an opportunity to sing the national anthem in front of the New York City Police Benevolent Association. It was their big rally in front of city hall. Hundreds of officers and law enforcement professionals were going to be there including then Mayor Giuliani, and actor Jerry Orbach, who played a detective on the famous Law & Order TV series. I was ecstatic! Nothing in my mind said, “Don’t do this, it could be dangerous.” I remember getting up that morning and getting ready, putting on my bright red blazer and taking extra time to do my hair and makeup. I warmed up in a studio to make sure my voice was ready. I even brought a tuning fork so I’d start on the right pitch, because if you’ve ever sung the national anthem, you know that if you start too high, you’re in trouble!! I had nothing but tailwinds at my back. Thinking about Amanda’s story, she had mostly headwinds pushing against her. And even though I didn’t cause them and wasn’t personally responsible for those headwinds, I asked myself, “What could I do more of to lessen the headwinds that others face?”

What are the headwinds and tailwinds in your life? What do you notice for others around you? What stories are we telling ourselves about each other’s headwinds and tailwinds? Do we need to examine those stories? What would be possible if we used empathy and compassion and curiosity to check our stories and possibly create tailwinds for someone? I love that Amanda Gorman wrote that essay and shared her story. I love that I’m rethinking the story I tell myself about fear and not letting it hold me back, but like Amanda, letting it call me forward. Also, what kind of emotional wake am I leaving for others to navigate? I’ll be reflecting on these questions and would welcome anyone who’d like to share their reflections and thoughts.


* Here’s the link to the article. If you aren’t a subscriber, it may not be available to you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s