Law in Contemporary Society

The Source of My Fear and My Path to Courage

-- By HoDongChyung - 19 May 2023


Before making big decisions, like going to law school, my instinct weighs my optimism for success against my fear of failure. And, at the end of every such decision, one sentiment is greater than the other. Too often, though, my fear gets the better of me.

My Fear’s Amplifier

The sources of my fear are pretty conventional but, generally, they are (1) the prospect of failure and (2) my lack of confidence in certain areas. I find such sources to be impossible to outroot so, instead, my response has been to mitigate their strength by turning to my passion and empathy. For example, if my cold call is regarding a topic I feel passionately about, it’s quite easy for me to dismiss the eyes of my colleagues and professor because my focus on the topic trumps my concern for other things.

My antidote to fear is thus “less indifference and more care.” Unfortunately, I have a deeply embedded neutralization mechanism that I frequently use to cope with difficult times and to detach myself from the attendant difficult emotions. When bad things happen, my knee-jerk reaction is to “see the other side of it.” I tell myself there are justified and fair reasons for why a bad thing happened and why it happening is not a big deal. I recycle through variations of “it was inevitable that things turned out this way”, “it’s not that bad,” or “at least I learn something from this.” This was how I have coped with heartbreak, embarrassments, and a few traumatic events over my lifetime.

As an example, I coped using this neutralization mechanism during my deportation from the States. Denials for visa extension applications had increased during the Trump administration and I was not fortunate enough to beat the odds. So, in December 2018, my life in the States appeared to end abruptly. My company informed me that I had no legal basis to remain in the U.S. and they did not know if I would be able to return. So I packed and stored my stuff, shared heartfelt good-byes, and left for Brazil, all within one week. I coped with this by telling myself I had no right to be angry because I was not a U.S. citizen so my ability to reside in the U.S. was possible only with the government’s reserved right to terminate my visa. I instead reminded myself to be grateful that I had remained in the States for as long as I did. I also assured myself that I would make do somehow in Brazil. All these self-messages regarding my deportation enabled me to neutralize any negative sentiment for it.

Sometimes, this mechanism of neutralization leads to seemingly courageous acts, like the time I rushed to immobilize a violent man beating another man until the police arrived – my fear of “what I get hurt” was neutralized by my reaction of “this other dude is going to get really hurt if I don’t do anything.” Other times, this neutralization results in indifference and has me sitting idly under the weight of fear, like the time I didn’t object to my coworkers’ derogatory remarks about another coworker – I thought “maybe the coworker did something really bad,” so I couldn’t muster enough care (and indignation) to overcome my background fear of the mob’s reactive backlash and anger. Though this detachment mechanism has been beneficial at times, I know it to also engender broad indifference.

Finding Courage

If my indifference often stifles my capacity to care enough, perhaps I need to rely more on confidence as a tool to combat doubt and fear. However, I have found maintaining confidence to be over-dependent on positive self-talk and achievements - it’s very conditional. Empathy and passion have been more durable and less shakable. For instance, not making the game-winning basketball shot for my team shakes my ability to say “I can make game-winning shots” but it doesn’t diminish the sentiment “I need to make this for my team who has clawed its way back from down 20.” Furthermore, though I may be indifferent to many things, I find care to be a more potent source of courage than confidence: the sense of fulfillment and joy I feel when doing something I care about relegates doubt and fear to a corner where I cannot sense them.

So I turn to the few things I do care about to guide my life. My proximity to poverty and violence in São Paulo, Brazil has inculcated in me a sensitivity against unequal access to opportunities and violent crimes. I also care about my parents, who will have to rely on me for financial sustenance. I also deeply enjoy using technology to create things with efficiency and scale. These compasses of passion motivated me to apply to law school with an eye towards legal tech, which I believe can democratize access to legal services while also being a lucrative pursuit.

In my very first year in law school, I let myself get over-consumed by the law school environment that fostered competition for 1L grades. I lost touch with my compasses. This summer, I am reorienting myself back on my original journey by processing the inspiration I salvaged from my first year to plan my next steps. Reading Desmond’s work has been one such inspiration. He had me thinking that there must be something technology can do to reduce the transaction costs for those in poverty when applying for food stamps and disability assistance or accessing affordable housing. There are other problems I’m interested in solving, though, and I am researching the intricacies of these problems over the next couple of months before committing to solving one of them. I may fail but it will be well worth it, simply because I will be working on the very things I care and get excited about.

Hi Ho Dong! First off, while I have never been to Brazil myself, my mom traveled there for work quite frequently during the earlier stages of her career in the fashion industry. Your reference to Operation Car Wash got me thinking about some of the stories she told me about the levels of poverty in Brazil, and what she referred to as the lack of respect for humanity she encountered during her travels there. The sight of people stepping on homeless kids laying on the street while going from place to place, across the road from luxury housing areas with visible poverty lines such as the one in this famous picture, for example, has stuck with her ever since she first traveled there. She still talks about it now, over a decade since her last trip to Brazil. While I still feel that events such as the attack on the Capitol do present real threats to democracy, I understand your indifference after having been exposed to much more extreme instances of destabilizing behavior. I also struggle to balance wanting to provide myself and my family (someday in the future) with a comfortable life versus aspiring to make a palpable change in the lives of children who otherwise may never have a chance to prosper themselves, and have spoken to Eben about this as well. I appreciate your perspective, and always find reading about what led people toward their desired career balance helpful. Thanks for sharing.


Thanks Michael for giving my piece a read and for the thoughtful remarks! The stark division shown in the image you linked actually quite resembles the area I live in - the favelas are only a few blocks away from my apartments. I have never seen people actually step on the homeless but the stripping of dignity against the poor, especially through fatal police brutality, was a recurring story during my childhood in Brazil.

Let's get lunch over the summer, if you're around, to talk about this struggle we both share and other (lighter) things as well. I'll reach out! Thanks again for reading my piece with an open mind.

-Ho Dong

My pleasure! And I have to say that's a relief. Saddening, though, that police brutality seems to take root in so many places.

Sounds great, looking forward to it!



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r7 - 23 Jul 2023 - 22:15:35 - HoDongChyung
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