“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”
Yann Martel, Life of Pi
I read this quote this morning and thought, “Yes!” How true it is. We tend to think that fear is something that only arises in moments when bad things are about to happen. But, don’t the origins of fear predate the current set of circumstances? Don’t we have to learn to be afraid, and to avoid fearful situations? Once when my nephew was very young (less than 2 years old), we took him to Sanibel Island to play in the ocean. We were walking slowly along the beach, when he suddenly reached down and picked up a dead crab as if he’d found a prize winning sea shell. He couldn’t have cared less that a) it was dead and b) had it been alive it could have pinched him. I reached out to stop him, but it was too late. He was turning it over in his little hands, letting the legs hang limply and unmoving during his curious examination. He was calm and intrigued; I was a nervous wreck. He had no fear of the dead creature, but I did. My thirty years of life experience had taught me that claws pinched and dead things were germy. They were not to be touched. Despite my better judgment and “wisdom,” I allowed my nephew to continue in his silent reverie over his new discovery. I even took his picture. I was extremely proud of myself for not reacting as my mother would have. Undoubtedly, she’d have knocked the poor dead creature out of my grip and drug me kicking and screaming back to the condo to wash my hands.
That same day, as my nephew was playing in the ripples of ocean at the water’s edge, he started to lose his balance and topple over-just as a wave was coming. I reached out to grab him, but I missed his arm. Luckily, I caught hold of the hem of his little shirt. The result was that he was stopped just short of going face down in the water as the wave hit. He was almost comically suspended an inch or two above the swirl of water (like that famous scene in Mission Impossible, where Tom Cruise is suspended by a wire from the ceiling), and then it gently receded. Again, he was amused and reached his hands down to pat the surface of the rushing wave. Again, I was afraid, only this time I was absolutely wordless with fear. What if I hadn’t caught him? What if my back had been turned for that moment? What if? I looked down at my nephew, splashing and laughing; totally carefree and oblivious. When I told my sister about it later, she laughed too. She said, “It’s a good thing you caught him, he’s still got tubes in his ears and he can’t get his head wet,” over her shoulder as she casually walked into the kitchen to check on lunch. Somehow, she wasn’t afraid.
We go about our daily business as if nothing could go wrong and that life is perfectly predictable. How else would we be able to fly in planes, drive cars, eat fast food, and let our children play in the ocean? We sort of have to act as if we’ll live forever, always be loved and never be penniless or hungry; don’t we? We can’t just be continually afraid of what could go wrong, ‘cause there are lots of things that could. It’s like the “suspension of disbelief” that allows us to enjoy movies about inexplicably articulate teenage vampires who are tender hearted and musically gifted. On some level we all know that there are an infinite number of ways that things can go irreparably wrong on any given day. The complete truth of a situation can be too much to handle. It can be extremely frightening and absolutely debilitating. Lately, Americans have had plenty of reminders that the world might not be so safe. It all gets overwhelming at times, and we forget how to imagine the world as a safe place. We can’t seem to relegate fear to the dusty attic where it belongs.
In Frank Herbert’s Dune there is a litany to be recited against fear: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” Man, I love that. Maybe the best thing about fear is that we have a great deal of power to destroy it. If we name it and face it, we can defeat it, like Yann Martel says. We can prevent ourselves from being susceptible to it when it tries to come around again. Perhaps that’s what ghost stories, horror movies and Hallowe’en do for us. They help us face our fear and dispel its power over us. Avoiding fear doesn’t seem to work. It tends to find you, even at the beach on a bright sunny day. We all have fears; monsters to slay. What are you afraid of?
Shouldn’t you enlist an ally worthy of the fight to join you in your quest? Check out our Life Skills Resource Group team of counselors and life coaches on our Home page if you’re ready to do battle Orlando.
To Contact: TherapistKimMurphy@gmail.com