Cowboys, Cancer and Fear

Purpose Respect


Sonny Johns is a friend of mine. This Texan is so “cowboy” that you can see George Strait’s aura surround him as he steps out of his truck, all boots and jeans.

I was with Sonny the other night in the capital of Texas, having Austin’s best BBQ at the iconic Rudy’s, wolfing down slabs of brisket and ribs, all smothered in sauce and distributed on shiny wax paper that also serves as cutlery. The conversation was even better than the dinner because Sonny is so fully alive and authentic. He’s just in his early 40’s and yet he has wrestled cancer and hogtied it to the ground twice. The last time (10 years ago), he was returning home from getting the oncologist’s diagnosis when he was hit broad side on his motorcycle. He ended up in intensive care, right back at the same hospital he was returning from. Sonny was given six months to live from the cancer let alone the bike crash, but he “cowboyed up,” his term for having the mental toughness to fight his way back to health.

Sonny will be the first to say that he couldn’t have done it without lots of help from many. But, he will also tell you that fear has two dimensions: one that comes from the concern related to uncertainty and doubt, and the other involves awe and a sense of extraordinary opportunity. It was his understanding and balance of both ends of the FEAR spectrum that gave him the mental framework to first survive and then thrive. Sonny is pictured with the moustache he is growing for Movember.

A personal growth teacher and coach, Tara Sophia Mohr has a thoughtful video and blog on the website Big Think about the spectrum of fear. In it she describes teachings by the late Rabbi Alan Lew that really changed her view on how to think about fear. Rabbi Lew talked about the many Hebrew words for fear, and about two words in particular. One is pachad – a fear of projected or imagined things. In our contemporary terms we talk about this as the fear of the irrational lizard brain (the amygdala, see Seth Godin’s work on this in his book Linchpin). It’s that over-reactive fear that when applied, often stands for False Expectations Appearing Real. That’s pachad – the fear of imagined worst case scenarios or consequences – a kind of delusional fear that we’re all hardwired to have. In the case of cancer although much of pachad fear is pretty rational, some is irrational too. In Hebrew another word for fear is yirah. According to Tara, the closest translation in English is “divine awe.” Rabbi Lew defines yirah as the fear that comes upon us when we inhabit a space that is larger than we’re used to inhabiting, when we are in the presence of something sacred or divine. When we are in that place of extreme uncertainty, there is some pachad (oh my God, what is going to happen?) and also a lot of yirah. There is that sacred, trembling feeling of being in the presence of something really mysterious and other worldly.

Character Move: when you are in that uncomfortable place that feels overwhelming, accept and recognize the pachad, AND allow yourself to find the yirah too. Hopefully we do not have to face the challenges Sonny did to learn these two definitions of fear in such a literal and sharp-edged way. Perhaps like Sonny, we can “cowboy up” and embrace the yirah when we find ourselves at the edge of something very unfamiliar. And like Sonny maybe we can leverage this to get closer to our real purpose in life. Embrace the sacredness of the space that is larger than what we’re used to inhabiting. The learning is waiting there for us.

Yirah in the Triangle,



You can find Sonny on Twitter @SonnyJohns or at Austin-based BestFit Mobile.