Why Choose Fear Over Happiness?


This week I was listening to a podcast of “This American Life” and there was a story about a woman from China, a successful executive secretary, who moved to the U.S. on a fiancée visa to marry a man she’d been corresponding with on the Internet, only to discover that her intended was a broke, unemployed slob, thirty years her senior. She was utterly miserable. At one point in the story, she said:

“There is no way for me to go back now. Everyone would know what I did. Everyone would know that I came here and didn’t get married and they would point at me and laugh. There is no choice for me but to stay and marry him.”

I find this attitude stunningly sad, and all too common. Why is a divorce after 2 or 3 or 5 years no big embarrassment, but somehow changing your mind before reaching the altar is humiliating beyond compare? Why do we as a society react that way?

Divorce? “Well, everyone makes mistakes.
Choose not to make the mistake in the first place?
How humiliating! And your poor mother. She was so looking forward to this day. And the guests. And the presents. What a waste!

Five years of your life with the wrong person is a waste.
Choosing happiness as a decision motivator, instead of fear, is a triumph.
We should celebrate that person, not denigrate.

In my own life, I lost a friend over this exact situation.

One of my best friends dated a woman for almost two years before they fell into that usual pattern of “do we break up or do we get married?” I will say, if either of you has to ask that question, just save yourselves the time and break up. One of you clearly does not want to be married, because when two people who do want to be married are together for two years, they just go ahead and get married. The question is never asked.

But in this relationship it was, and my friend crumbled under the pressure and bought the ring and started planning the wedding. I wasn’t sure if he was happy or not, so I went along, being supportive of the impending nuptials, then, I got the saddest phone call ever.

My friend was white, and his bride was not, and two weeks before his wedding, his mother sent him a nine-page letter in which she revealed herself to be an unbridled, raving racist. It contained statements about how hard their family worked to live in a certain part of town, suggested that his fiancée only wanted to marry him to get her green card (which she already had before they met), and compared her to girls she knew in high school from the wrong side of the tracks who got pregnant (which she was not) just to trap someone from a higher class. She demanded he call off the wedding.

He called me, sobbing, because right before he opened that letter, he was going to call off the wedding. He had realized they were making a mistake and thought it better not to go through with it, but when he tried to have this conversation with his future wife, she refused. She also had come to the same realization, but thought there was too much shame in calling it off.  He was going to bite the bullet and do it for them both.

Then he got the letter.

He said to me, “What I want to do more than anything is call off the wedding and never speak to my mother again.
Do that!” I screamed.
But he couldn’t. He was afraid people would think he shared his mother’s attitude, and he just couldn’t bear that.

So…they got married.

And I could not bring myself to go to the wedding. I just knew too much.  So I didn’t go, and my friend never spoke to me again.

I understand. I wasn’t there for him on a day when he probably most needed me. I regret that, but if I’d gone, I’m pretty sure I would have just walked up to his mom and punched her in the face, so I’m guessing I would have regretted that more. Maybe not.

My friend poured himself into his job, and a few years into their loveless marriage, his wife contracted cancer and died within a year. I heard through the grapevine, and sent a card, but I’ve never heard from him. I know he’s still angry. I met a colleague of his at a party two years ago – someone he met and befriended long after all of this took place, and she knew exactly who I was, and could not have been more uncivil to me.


Fear is the worst possible emotion on which to base life decisions.
Please don’t do it!

No one ever died of embarrassment. Some people have been so embarrassed that they took their own lives, but that is not the same. Whatever humiliation you might be suffering will pass, and a lot more quickly than whatever results from a fear-based life choice.

When making a decision, ask, “What will make me happy?” and be brutally honest in your response. Once you know, do that. Let others manage their own happiness, and if they want to judge you, let ‘em. Who cares? Life’s too damn short.

On the other hand, if someone is judging you, and making it impossible for you to choose happiness over what is “expected” of you, let me know.  Since I’m older and wiser now, I’ve learned what regrets I can and can’t live with, and this time around, I will come there and punch them in the face.

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