Fear Is the Mind-Killer

Steven Barnes
5 min readNov 30, 2022

I was wrong. Unpacking my office in the new house, I found this, my first black belt certificate, granted in January of 1993.

I did the math, and realized I was wrong when I’d told people it took me 17 years to earn my first black belt. It took me TWENTY-THREE YEARS.

The average person earns theirs in about five, I’d reckon. I was dealing with a horror show of emotional scar tissue from bullying, growing up without a father, being a four-eyed pot-bellied little nerd, and living in a society I believed wanted to kill me.

I was afraid of EVERYTHING. And built a false wall of cocky confidence around that fear. Then, when the shell inevitably collapsed I was left with nothing.

I know someone who ended his life because of just this pattern. Fear. False ego shell. False self confidence. Impostor syndrome and collapse.

Even though I’d won second place at the National Korean Karate championships in 1972, I suffered a huge, shattering ego wake-up call when I joined the BKF. Compared to them, I didn’t know how to fight at all, and it felt as if nothing I had learned or done had made any difference, that I was still the 14 year old kid who was so ashamed of his weakness.

I developed a pathological fear of sparring, even though I was good at it. Driving to class on a sparring day felt like driving to my own execution. It was HORRIBLE, and I remember driving down La Brea avenue in L.A., tears streaming down my face, praying “God, will either take away my urge to do this thing, or just let me @#$$ DO IT?”

I knew that if I quit, no one would chasten me. No one would blame me. Probably, no one would even NOTICE. It was my business. So why couldn’t I quit, if it cost me so much pain?

Was it fear of being physically attacked? Nah. I don’t go to risky places, and my verbal de-escalation skills are excellent. Want my wallet? Take it. Call my mother names? She’s dead. You can’t hurt her.

I’m just not going to get prodded into a fight, and I don’t walk down dark allies or go to bars. WHY WAS I SO DETERMINED TO LEARN SOMETHING THAT SEEMED SO PAINFUL?

It didn’t seem to make sense. I knew, even then, that living animals move away from pain toward pleasure. Why, then, would I deliberately, calculatedly, force myself into an artificial situation where I ran smack into my wounds every day?

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Steven Barnes

Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling author, ecstatic husband and father, and holder of black belts in three martial arts. www.lifewritingpodcast.com.