Cowboys, Cancer and Fear

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.

  1. Sonny Johns says:

    Jeff! I’m so happy to learn your “Princess Warrior” is now in remission and from my family to yours we pray it continues. I see a bright future for your young lady!

    We’re seeing some solid support tools/networks out of the and camps. More than happy to conduct intros as needed.

    Be well,

  2. Jeff Walters says:

    Lorne – This was a great reminder that fear can cause, as Eckhart Tolle expressed in “The Power of Now”, paralysis of present…you and those around you do not move forward but regress and become insignificant.

    Sonny – You are looking great!!! You inspired me over 10 years ago with your true grit in the face of peril and today you give me hope for a better tomorrow. My daughter is battling Leukemia and is currently in remission…Your story adds to the reason why our “Princess Warrior” will be a strong survivor like my old friend Sonny J…God Bless!!!

    • Lorne says:

      Jeff….the princess warrior will go on to thrive largely due to the incredible strength of her dad and all those around her. The Walters have written a Northwest version of ” cowboy and cowgirl up”

      Thanks for commenting Jeff.


  3. Lorne says:

    Sonny…you are the inspiration. Thank you for ” cowboying up”


  4. Sonny Johns says:

    Thank you Lorne for inspiring me on my own leadership journey. It was so great to see you again and thank you for sharing it!

    Be well,

  5. Paul says:

    Just yesterday I was thinking about this issue of perceived obstacles that we imagine is happening around us and to us, when in fact 80% of some problems are happening in our heads in the WAY we are perceiving and thinking about a situation. I came to the conclusion that from now on I should spend as much effort, if not more, on resolving the obstacles in my mind which are causing me to magnify outside problems. The real culprit is often the way we are seeing, the filter we see through, as opposed to what we see.

    • Lorne says:


      I really do believe the culprit is as you say ; letting our mind control us and magnify ….thank you for your thoughtful reply as always


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