I had been wracked by anxiety as I prepared to give the public lecture. There would be a big audience. They would be expecting to hear something worthwhile. They would be expecting me to be good. I was afraid it would not go well. I was afraid they would not be pleased. I was afraid I would make a fool of myself. I had trouble falling asleep at night because of my restless thoughts.
Then in my bed at night I dreamed of the lecture. I presented it badly, very badly. I stumbled over my words. My thoughts were incoherent. I was not able to get my point across, in fact I could hardly remember what the point was as I strained to get the words out. I could see from the faces in the room that everybody was bored, dispirited, distracted. Wherever I looked I saw people glancing at their watches, fiddling with their phones, or snoozing discreetly in their seats. Then the lecture ended and on their faces I saw not anger or consternation or even disappointment, but only mild embarrassment. Their embarrassment made me embarrassed too as I left the podium and walked stiffly back to my seat.
I woke from the nightmare. The room had grown cold. It was dark except for the sliver of yellow light on the wall from the street lamp. My wife stirred gently in her sleep. I realised I had thrown off the covers. I pulled them up to my chin because I was cold.
I lay in the dark and thought: What a terrible lecture.
Then I thought: So that's the worst that can happen. Embarrassment.
And then I thought: Well then, I can certainly live with that.
I had just given one of the worst lectures of my life, certainly one of the worst five I have ever given, and I was actually – smiling! More than that – I don't quite know how to put this delicately – I actually, well, I chortled for a second before I stopped myself because as everybody knows chortling is a ridiculous way to behave at four in the morning.
And then I rolled over and went back to sleep and slept with a peaceful heart till morning, for I had seen my worst fear and had discovered, to my great surprise, that it was nothing to be afraid of.