Tag Archiv: fear
Slaying Goliath, by Peter Paul Rubens. 1616.
Hate is a scary thing. I don’t know if most people are afraid of it, but I am. Hate hangs heavy in dark places like a towel sopping wet on the line. Seemingly like Thompson’s hound of heaven, hate haunts down the narrow back alleys. Waits to find us unawares. Stalks us with intent.
To escape it is no small feat. Victory is rarely won in a single battle. Hatred is a tempting response to hatred. Many of us, therefore, know both sides of the monster rather better than we wished.
Like love, there are lesser forms of hate. One of my children “hates” one of their siblings right now. Most everything said sibling does is cause for disgust. I don’t think child A hates child B. I think they love them but feel so terribly insecure about themselves that they need to put another person down. It isn’t hate yet, but unchecked it has the seeds to grow a bumper crop.
I listened once to a mother explain to me how strongly she felt about violence. She could not tolerate it to the extent that were someone to enter her home, she could not imagine attacking them to protect her children. I, on the other hand, can imagine without any effort attempts to inflict as much bodily harm on said intruder as possible with whatever frying pan, steak knife, or cat was handy. This may reflect primordial instinct and a parent’s duty to protect (I think it does) but in my case at least, even the idea of this kind of danger taps into a rage against threat that is not all good.
Most of us have our own supply of hate. The never ending news feeds encourage it’s close cousin, terror. In our rising fear we borrow liberally from a great bank of hate. With so much danger all around, hate (like State Farm insurance) is something we can never have too much of.
The following occurred in my presence. I share because it begs the question.
A boy not mine. Deeply wounded. Deeply troubled.
A girl. Smaller. Younger. Upset because the boy has called her an idiot.
Me. Sighing. Boy breathes rage. Nothing can be done but this is not the time to say that.
Say something loving, I offer, not at all sure of myself.
The girl hesitates the walks to the boy.
You hurt my feelings, she said softly.
What? interrupted the boy loudly.
You hurt my feelings, she said. But I forgive you.
Ok, said the boy.
The girl walked away. The boy followed her.
Hey, he said. He tapped her on the shoulder. Hey, what did I do that hurt your feelings?
You called me an idiot, she said.
For a second he looked confused. Then he tapped her on the shoulder again.
Hey, he said. I’m sorry I said that. Then he followed her across the room and said sorry two more times. For the rest of the class, there was no rage.
Scotland Forever.By Lady Butler. 1881
Last week I sat with tea drinkers and tried to share the notion that some days I find myself looking forward to being a grandmother. I don’t actually want my 14 year old son involved in reproduction. What I want is relationships where I don’t have to worry about messing up the kids if I do it wrong.
I have an issue with fear, I said. The fear of getting it wrong is exhausts me. Distracted by the notion of a forty-two year old wanting to be a grandmother, everyone laughed. This did not feel pleasant because I wasn’t trying to be funny.
I have been around this bush before. Twenty dollars says I’ll be around it a few more times before the race is done. But as my husband would say, it is what it is.
What stayed with me in the years since I saw the movie, “The Nativity,” was not about the beauty of the birth. What struck me was what a terrifying time and place it all occurred in. Bethlehem under Roman rule was a very bad birthing location. A baby savior for a world drunk on power and violence was a scary idea.
I know my fear is behind much of my tendency to overreact to things, but I don’t know how to let go of it. I have this picture in my head. On one side is a hundred warriors with spears, soldiers on horses charging, and all the ugliness of the world today. Which one is coming at me changes, what doesn’t change is in front of me. A little boy with chocolate skin and bushy curls is smiling, playing in the dirt, and asking me to believe the impossible.
It has always seemed like letting go of fear would be ceasing to feel afraid. The choice is starker and it takes my breath away. The soldiers are real. So is the baby. I’m choosing sides in a battle. Soldiers with weapons vs. lone baby with loin cloth. Stories about the power of love vs. hate seem a tenuous nail on which to hang my hat with angry men charging.
Everything, I realize, comes down to this. Not after fear is behind me, but precisely while it’s rising up. While my throat is tightening and my body is trembling. Then. Now. Against all logic, I can choose the baby. For better or for worse, I can let a flexing two year old be all that stands between me and my deepest fears.
Behold, the propositions of Advent.
It was quiet in my house this weekend. I was home to take care of animals and write. The rest of the folks went camping. It was lovely. And ground breaking. The victories were quiet. No fireworks. They came the way most victories come. Steadily pushing on, like the forests overtaking the fields, year after year they’re back. More seeds. More seedlings, try again.
I am afraid of the dark. More specifically, I am afraid to be alone in the dark. As a teenager, I maintained a strict routine. I did not walk to my bed after turning off the light. I flicked the switch and leapt into bed from three feet away. No errant unknown things reaching for my ankles, thanks. I knew there weren’t monsters under my bed. Probably no people either, but the routine helped and so I did it.
I was a nightmare child. And really, who am I kidding, the nightmares have been significantly reduced from the paralyzing strength they held in my twenties, but they still come round now and again to say hello. Remind me about darkness and what I think of it.
Since high school, I’ve either had a roommate or been married (a package that conveniently comes with a roommate). My husband has gone away many times, but there have always been children in the house or someone. I have gone away and had hotel rooms to myself. But never, until this weekend, have I ever spent the night at my own home alone.
No houses in sight. No hotel guests on the other side of the wall. Just me, the cats, and the dog.
Fear traumatizes. If we could see each other’s souls, and I do believe we can for tiny moments, but anyway, if you looked at mine, a lot of the scars you’d see would be from the swaths fear cut. Where I grew up, the reasons for fear came and went, not like seasons you saw coming, but like tornadoes out of nowhere.
Children are not sophisticated. They smell a storm, any storm, and having seen a few tornadoes touch down, they wisely fear the power of all harsh winds. So it was with me, alone in the dark for what felt like a very long childhood.
Time, love, forgiveness. They all do their part to heal. But nobody it seems was assigned to heal the little bit about the darkness. Hence, at 42, I remain afraid to be alone in the dark.
Going into the weekend I was a little anxious but determined. Now, with my family home again, my roommate returned to where he should be in the bed beside me, I feel a bit triumphant. I did it. I stayed in a house by myself (fully mobile and functional) two nights in a row.
Look, Mom, no hands!
Mary Agnes, By Robert Henri, 1924
I heard the title of the poem, “Our Deepest Fear,” before I actually read it. I imagined a kind of kinship with the author. Wondered what the answer was. When I finally read it, I felt confused.
“Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure . . .”
The people reciting the poem in movies are always so courageous and convincing that despite my inability to get it, I feel happy for them. But my deepest fear? Well, it ain’t that. For fun on a sleepless night, I managed to corral mine under one of two umbrellas. First, that I am ultimately unlovable, and second, that I will fail to love well those that mean the most to me. (I know, my deepest fears would make a lousy movie if the poem had gone my way.)
I try to be a tidy liver – as in a person who lives tidily, not the organ meat you fry with onions – but sometimes my fears get messy. This goes for deep ones and spiders and I swear there’s a pattern. Except I haven’t deciphered it, so I don’t predict the deep fear rising soon enough to quarantine myself from the outside world until it passes. Once it arrives, it’s too late. I’m a blithering idiot just wanting something to make it better. Even worse, I talk to people. Or try to.
When the fear submarines decide to go down again, they smile and pretend to deep six themselves. I wave goodbye because I am so done with them, but I mostly know that part is pretending. Past experience is that they don’t have the decency to die, they just bubble out of sight so they can take a break down there where it’s murky. Sometimes they hover just out of hearing but I can tell by the water they haven’t gone far. Other times they disappear to the ocean floor for so long, I start to believe they’re gone. Either way, there’s afterwards.
A submarine came up for air recently. This particular one especially compels me to pour out my soul as nakedly as possible. With sub in sight, I am certain this is the only solution. Once the sub dives down again, I am left cursing my lack of clothing, wondering what possessed me and swearing all kinds of promises to myself to never do that again.
Might I say, despite the possible agitation caused to those convinced that I just don’t get that part of Ms. Williamson’s poem, how lovely it would be, if my deepest fear was that I was powerful beyond measure.
Also I am looking for the button. The one you can push to have recent words erased from other people’s heads, replaced instead with the notion that I am soooo together now.
When my mother got cancer, I was very matter of fact. All was well until the tests said otherwise. I listened to poor prognosis and small chances of treatment. I was very careful with my hope then. I treated it like oil, where there’s a limited supply, everybody wants it, and the price keeps going up. I didn’t want to use too much.
My mother was the opposite. She worried most at the beginning. Once cancer paraded out of the closet with tests and labels, she was ferocious in hope. Doctors had no right to say she might die. She would not until she was good and ready. She painted her toenails red and wrote a poem about how if she died, she’d go out with ten little flags waving: this one did not go willingly. Don’t worry, she would tell me. I can feel it. I’m going to get better.
She didn’t. At least not how she was expecting.
I was told last week that I probably have Raynaud’s phenomenon. It is generally harmless, involves very cold feet, hands, and nose, and is caused by spastic contractions of blood vessels. When it does cause complications, it is treated with blood pressure medication.
Seems unlikely, I said when the doctor suggested it. No one in my family has it. I doubt I have it. (The apple did not fall far from my mother’s tree.) Then I went home and read about it. Honestly, the information is not that troubling. Except that I was troubled. This last year of fussing to get my iron and hemoglobin levels up, now a “phenomenon.” Really? Phenomenon sounds ridiculous. Can’t it just be a disease, a disorder, even an affliction? But no, I’ve got a phenomenon. And not just one of them.
The other phenomenon is what happens when you inherit, “damn the torpedo,” genes from your mother and paranoid, “don’t count on health or life,” genes from your paternal grandmother. She died at ninety, but even at fifty, it seemed as though the threat of the Lord’s call to home hung like a knife in the air above her head. Maybe I didn’t see it, but she sure could.
I used to laugh at her, but now I don’t. I get it. Paranoia feels logical and crazy both. Low iron, Raynaud’s phenomenon . . . they’re not fatal. But underneath it all, I’m afraid of dying. Since my mother died, part of me is looking over my shoulder trying to figure out when to duck. Healthy living and optimism do not save you or she’d be here painting toenails with my girls. But neither does anything else. Life and death arrive on their own terms with or without our permission.
I’d give up the ghost, but I see it as plain as writing on the wall right now: the details of unknown are messy, but the goodness of the plan is guaranteed. My fear vs. my lack of control unnerves me, but it’s ok. It really, really is. I fear. I doubt. Yet Love. Always and forever, abides.
A Young Scholar, painted by Jean-Honore Fragonard. 1778.
I like to remember brave deeds. Grade six friends who forgot their bus notes could count on me to pen their permissions and sign their parent’s names. When the burly book keepers from a Jello Wrestling fundraiser tried to fudge the numbers, my 17 year old self was more than happy to take them to task while our math intimidated adult supervisor fretted. I am comfortable questioning immigration officials, security personnel, and government employees.
I don’t remember many instances where people described me as fearful. I remember more the feeling of being jostled forward with, “send Michelle, she’s not afraid,” in my ears. The day I grabbed my brother and kept him firmly between me and the growling dog, no one was there to see. But No-Criticism-Lent (Reduced-Criticism Lent might be more accurate) isn’t lying. I am afraid.
I went into Lent thinking I needed it because I walked around with inappropriate levels of grumpiness about other people’s foibles. Considering fear in the equation is like realizing I’ve been navigating the kitchen with a paper bag on my head. My eyes are adjusting to the super bright. I’m still taking in the increased definition in shapes and the nuances of color.
It is amazing to me how the patterns we develop as children shape our adult responses. Sometimes when I think I am keeping my own children safe, I am really assuring the child I once was that she is safe. The insight doesn’t give me a pass on criticizing, it gives me the chance to do something about the fear that’s behind it.
Which is scary.
“Naked revelation,” I wrote yesterday, “I criticize because I am afraid. . . If no one messes up, everything will be ok, nothing will fall apart, and no one will get hurt.” The statement implies that my criticism does not actually save me from what I am afraid of. In other words, I realized that fear drives me, and then I realized my go-to coping mechanism is useless. My footing would be more sure on the melting ice floating around on our pond right now. I guess the best thing about having grey hair, is that you can feel all that slipping and wait it out. Wet boots, cold feet, soggy pants maybe, but you make it to something solid and go on in to get warm.
I’m afraid of things falling apart. I don’t have the power to make myself and everybody else do it right (so that bad things never happen). But it’s ok. The fear of the child who was me can be gently diffused. The future is uncertain and uncontrollable. Instead of tearing down the metaphorical neighbors who walk on my yard, I can lean into loving them. It will be a work in progress, but if the world starts crumbling on account of it, maybe we can face it together.
It is still Lent. For two more weeks I am attending to the business of not criticizing, forgetting to attend to it, refusing to attend to it, and again attending to it. I expected my attempts would make a nice Lent for others. (I have longed to point out the rudeness of not thanking me for the blessings of my sacrifice, but I withheld the criticism.) At times, I have taken myself down off the ledge by thoughts of a list. Perhaps, I have told myself, if I had a tiny notebook, I could quickly note unspoken irritations. I imagine Easter morning, arising notebook in hand, to toddle down and mark at long last on a poster.
Coffee container lid left off: 12
Coffee grinds on counter: 29
Cupboard doors open: 231
Outdoor voice in church: 2
Laughing at myself has so far prevented the move to record keeping. When the notebook idea fails me, I imagine exercises to commit the crimes to memory. It would be, I tell myself, rather like memorizing Bible verses, but slightly different. A liturgy of infractions one could sing softly at intervals.
If I’m not mistaken, Lent is a little longer than usual this year. I’ve had time to analyze. Misdeeds are occurring at the usual rates; my silence has not impacted them for better or worse. The usual pattern of things has held. There are days virtually free of transgression, and there are days on which felonies are committed so closely together as to appear continuous.
But some things are different. No-criticism Lent is making itself known, despite imperfect execution. The house is more peaceful. I am more peaceful. At the moment I hold my tongue, chewing banana peels would be preferable, but later, even minutes later, the world has not ended and I can smile again.
My speech diet is helping my eyes. I notice unfinished projects, but keeping my mouth shut is buying me enough time to see the good intentions waylaid by interruption. I feel more grateful, more patient, less irritated.
On the bad days most of this is thrown in the garbage while I go back and live like I’m used to. This is the mystery I have wondered about the most. If withholding criticism and practicing generosity of spirit yields such positive results – which for me it does – why do anything else ever again? Why even want to?
Maybe everyone has known the answers to those questions since they were five. I realized the answer while I was driving last week. It was the kind of thing that made me want to stop the car and sit with my thoughts, but the stopping part wasn’t possible. I used my kilometers to think.
Naked revelation: I criticize because I am afraid. If we don’t get it right, we get it wrong. When you get it wrong, bad things happen. If no one messes up, everything will be ok, nothing will fall apart, no one will get hurt.
More on this tomorrow.
I hate the dentist. It isn’t personal. I hate all dentists, but since I’ve had the same one for almost twenty years, I suppose it’s possible that she could get confused. I remember when I was eight and my mother took me to the doctor to have plantar warts removed from my feet. The doctor used liquid nitrogen to burn them off. It hissed and smoked and hurt. My mother thought I should be grateful but grateful I was not. I would stare at the top of his head, bent over torturing my feet, and I would hate him with everything in me. Even at eight, I understood that I was being irrational, but the knowledge did nothing to change how I felt. Away from him, I could say he might be a good man. In his presence, I despised him and clung desperately to mental images of myself hitting him with a baseball bat or kicking him over and sizzling part of him with his own torture device.
I have progressed very little in my relationship with my dentist. The last time I visited her, I told her that it was quite difficult to like her, given the amount of misery she caused me. I expected that she would take this tongue in cheek. It is not the kind of thing that adults say to each other in earnest. The fact that it was technically true was to me a very private matter.
This week I had to go back to the dentist for a marathon two hour appointment to get a crown put on. Somehow it came up that she had taken my pretend/real admission rather personally. I can’t remember how it was that she communicated this unfortunate piece of information. What I remember is that I then had to force myself to be warm and appreciative for two hours, while drooling and being simultaneously poked, pushed, prodded, and gagged. Attempts to make up for hurting her feelings instead of quietly hating her, came at such effort as to make the whole thing an odd kind of religious experience of an intensity I do not often experience. Smiling and friendliness (in the brief moments of respite when my mouth was free of her meddling) cost me something. I left feeling tired but different. I was grateful for the grace that came, but I didn’t want any more of it very soon.
Still, I wonder about ramifications. Having softened to the human behind the evil metal dentistry tools, I am stuck wondering about the what if. What if there is something be said for being human to people who hurt me . . . or at least trying?
Dear Birthday Girl,
When you were born, I was so afraid I was shaking. Outside I was smiling but inside I was scared down to the deepest parts of me. I wondered if God had made a mistake – not about you, just about letting me be your mom. I wanted you so much the words for wanting you couldn’t get out without closing up my throat and coming out in a whisper. But you were a girl. And a girl was me. And I didn’t have any idea how to be someone that you would want to grow up to be like.
You took care of that part, being so much yourself that I didn’t have to worry about you trying to be like me, I just had to love you. And that was easy.
I’m glad I got that little jean jacket outfit for you when you were a baby. Otherwise, I would have never seen what my kind of clothes looked like on you. As soon as you could walk and open drawers, you tore off anything you didn’t like. Only the frilly stuff stayed on, so I could dress you in what you loved or find you playing naked and search the premises for whatever reject outfit I’d chosen.
Here’s a picture of my favourite present you ever gave me. You made it for me when you were about five, wrapped in tissue paper in a box and you danced while I opened it.
“You’re going to love it. I made it myself.” And then leaping and pointing. “See! It’s a rosary. There’s the beads. And the cross. I got it off the bottom of a toy car. I couldn’t believe it. Doesn’t it look just like a cross?”
Eventually, when summer came and the sun got hot on my dresser, I found out that you had used molasses for the glue to hold it all together. Three years later, the top of the coffee lid medallion is still sticky. It was too perfect to change so I didn’t.
So much you have taught me, my curious, artsy, feminine, non-conformist.