Today, if I’m being honest, I’m not exactly sure where I’m headed with things.
I’m starting with a broad topic: fear. But beyond that, it’s all vague notions at this point, shifting shadows on the walls. Or maybe it is clear notions — just too many of them.
All I can do is invite you to buckle your safety belt, place your seat backs and trays in the upright position and enjoy the ride, trusting that this flight will eventually land.
Wednesday of last week, I was out at a local snack shack with one of the kids I mentor — a young lady I’ll call Hailey. Other than us, there were only six other customers in the place. One elderly couple sat at a small table not far away, chatting quietly. A group of four teens huddled near the counter, placing their orders.
If you’d been there, you would likely have thought the place was “dead.” Hailey, however, looked panicked. Her shoulders were hunched, body rigid, as wary eyes darted back and forth between the other patrons. I could hear her tense breaths going in and out.
When one of the young guys wandered in our direction to grab a straw from a nearby dispenser, Hailey cringed away as if he were wearing a black ski mask and brandishing a weapon at her. “I don’t like this,” she murmured in a ragged whisper, her lips pale and barely moving. She swallowed hard. “I really don’t like this.”
In that moment, Hailey was experiencing intense fear.
Until recently, Hailey had always met me at my house for our sessions. When we first started five years ago, fear engulfed her. She barely spoke, answering me with gestures where possible; and when words were actually required, her voice was so timid that I had to lean in to hear her, even though we sat a mere two feet apart on the same couch.
We took baby steps.
I had her work on speaking with gradually increased volume.
I helped her learn to smile. And her mother intimated to me that she’d never heard Hailey laugh out loud before her visits to my home.
I’d have her sit just outside my door where a passerby might hear her while we continued talking (though I don’t know if any ever did).
Her parents worried and wept, fearful that Hailey would never drive. Never graduate. Never be able to work a job.
I’m happy to say that Hailey received her high school diploma this past May. From side streets to highways at rush hour, she drives (and parks, I might add) like a pro. And she’s even worked a few jobs already.
But fear still limits her. So now, we do “field trips” out in the wide world. Little by little, I’m exposing her small doses of the things she’s afraid of — unfamiliar people, decision making in public, and more — all carefully meted out with the safety net an inch further away each time.
I have a close friend who used to have to open her front door, close her eyes and count to three, then run to her car, ducking and squealing the whole way. Why? She was terrified that plane fuselage might fall on her if she were out in the open.
The same friend never traveled too far north, because that would require going through underwater tunnels in Boston.
She no longer contends with the fear of falling space debris. And she conquered the tunnels by literally cranking up the radio on a rock station, gritting her teeth, screaming at the top of her lungs and crying as she forced herself to drive into the “death traps,” the blood draining from fingers that clutched the wheel as if it were life itself.
From spiders to spinsterhood, ghosts to global warfare, fear has more faces than a hexakosioihexekontahexaphobe could bear to count to.
Likewise, there’s certainly no shortage of motivational books, posters and internet memes devoted to the topic of dealing with fear. Here are a few I’ve come across recently:
Feel the fear
and do it anyway.
Fight your fears
and you’ll be in a battle forever.
Face your fears
and you’ll be free forever.
Only when we are no longer afraid
do we begin to live.
Here’s where I get a little fuzzy around the edges as to what it is I want to say.
I think we read these things and they feel “right.” They feel inspirational. And they’re usually accompanied by pictures of alligator wrestlers or climbers at sunset dangling from a sheer cliff wall by the chalked fingers of one hand. It’s all so Joan of Arc. And so we nod and say “Mmmmmm…” and click “LIKE.”
And then go about our business, exactly as we were.
After all, what do these quotable quotes really mean? How do they change what we’re going to do today, the choices we’ll make regarding fear tomorrow?
You see, I don’t know about you, but my fear isn’t alligators. Truth be told, unless I’m in Florida, they really don’t cross my mind all that much. And I’ve never even considered scaling a mile-high rock face, not so much out of fear as because it’s just not something that’s ever been on my radar.
And is fear always a bad thing? I mean, if we were all to take “Feel the fear and do it anyway” or “Only when we are no longer afraid do we begin to live” at face value, mightn’t we get ourselves into a lot more trouble in life? It strikes me that a certain level of fear is useful in preventing drug use, criminal behavior, bodily injury, venereal disease and a whole host of other things we’d be wise to bypass.
In fact, if I’m not mistaken, “Feel the fear and do it anyway” is indicative of sociopathic behavior.
What exactly does it mean to “face your fear” as opposed to “fighting” it? How would I face or fight a fear like rejection? Or aging? Or dying? (I don’t think the “do it until you’re not afraid of it anymore” approach would meet with much success here.)
And wouldn’t it be fairly important to differentiate fear from, say, caution? Or worry? Or healthy respect?
Don’t get me wrong. I think there’s merit in each of these sayings, as well as others by people I respect greatly, from Roosevelt to Gandhi. And I could discuss at length the underlying truth to be found in any of them. I just wonder if they go beyond lofty ideals to actually helping us, in ways that matter right now.
I could send Hailey a hundred such quotes a day, recite them to her every time I see her. I could even have her memorize them. But I don’t believe they’d help her overcome her fear.
And it seems to me that my phobic friend was simultaneously fighting and facing her fears as she drove white-knuckled through those Boston tunnels.
If a fear doesn’t incapacitate me or keep me from my goals, have I “faced” it? Is it even still a fear, or is it something else?
And is avoidance (i.e., not facing the thing we fear) ever acceptable? Even perhaps ideal?
Hmmm. It doesn’t appear this plane will be landing anytime soon, does it.
Perhaps we’ll simple stay aboard while we refuel on this one. I’ll grab the pretzels.
I’m not convinced that “what it all means” is as important to figure out as what it all means to you — and what you’re going to do about it.
I guess if I were to attempt to draw any one conclusion here, it would be that we’ll never get anywhere with regard to our fears unless we clear some space for stillness and contemplation, and then make new choices — likely hard choices — that lead to a plan of action.
I’m helping Hailey clear that space, make those choices and execute a plan of action. And we both see the results.
How will that look for you? I don’t know. If we were given the chance to talk it through, I might have some suggestions for you (as you might for me). But I don’t know.
One thing’s for sure when it comes to fear in our lives: if we change nothing, nothing changes.