A New leaf part 3- Facing Fears
When I was 8 years old, I heard a story on the news about a man contracting HIV through a needle left on a seat in a movie theater. Panic struck me, and nothing felt safe. Of course, going to movies was out. There was no way I would fall victim to the same trap. Eventually, it went beyond a fear of going to movies to a fear of public places. If someone could be sick enough to put an infected needle on a movie theater chair, what’s to stop someone from putting a needle in the sand at the baseball field or in my backyard? The fear became so consuming that one day I found a sewing needle on the floor of our garage, and I started panicking and shaking. I asked my mom through tears and heavy breaths, “Why would God create a world and allow it to be filled with so much awfulness?” (Still a question that stirs me deeply.)
I was a scared, anxious kid. When I heard about something bad happening to someone else somewhere else, I immediately assumed it would happen to me, too. (This could also have been the beginning stages of narcissism now that I think about it.) Once I had a fear in mind, it became consuming and would lead to irrational scenarios where I would be doomed and there was nothing anyone could do to help. Looking back, I empathize with my mom and siblings. It must have felt so helpless to watch me panic inconsolably.
One of the reasons why I became a child and adolescent counselor is my deep understanding of how small and vulnerable a child can feel and how big and scary the world can seem. Although I still experience acute fears and high levels of anxiety at times, I no longer exist in that place of constant fear that consumed much of my energy as a child. As I got older, my fears took on more of an existential focus. Who am I? What is my purpose? Does anything I do really matter? Are we all just a speck of dust on the top of a flower being carried by a clumsy elephant named Horton? You know, the little things. Although these questions could consume me if I let them, I have found ways to re-focus myself from them by connecting with others, engaging in purposeful activities and embracing faith so that the unanswered questions could coexist with what I believed to be true.
I asked my college students to write down alternative words for common emotions like sadness, anger and fear. A descriptive emotion that came up to quantify fear was the word petrified. Literally paralyzed; frozen with fear. Think of the curse “Petrificus Totalus” from Harry Potter. The victim’s body goes rigid and the only thing he can move is his eyes. I know that feeling. And as I incorporate my thoughts and beliefs about fear with my passions and visions for my life, that word seems to be a common reaction to moving forward with my dreams. Sometimes, I literally feel stuck where I am out of fear. Fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, fear of change… Staying still feels safer, but in actuality, it perpetuates the state of fear- the petrification.
As a parent, it is remarkable to watch your child overcome fear. My son has a beautiful blend of a cautious and adventurous spirit that I really admire. I can see his initial concern and fear when he is presented with something he doesn’t understand or hasn’t experienced before, but it is followed by a desire to try. It’s like he knows he will regret it if he lets his fear take over. He has a bit of a formula for how he handles his fears. He starts out tentative and stays close. He checks things out for a minute or two and takes it all in. Then he slowly engages. He tries this new activity for a few seconds, then looks back and smiles. *This is my cue.* “Stay close, but I am going in.” After participating for a little while, he runs over to me with excitement in his eyes and asks if I saw him. I answer “I sure did!”, and he returns to the activity, not as a novice anymore, but as a student who is catching on and ready for more challenge.
I want to experience life that way. I don’t want to miss out on adventures because of my fear. And I don’t want to model for that my son. I want him to know that fear is normal and appropriate and even necessary, but that it doesn’t have to win. Some things are more powerful than fear- like love. In the third book/movie in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, one of my favorite characters, Eowyn, niece of King Theoden, wants to fight with the men. When talking to Aragorn about fear, she says that she fears neither death nor pain, but rather a cage– “To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall or desire.”
Eowyn does fight. In fact, she defeats the witch king, who touted that no man could ever kill him. (To which she responds, “I am no man!” Love it.) And she doesn’t do it for valor or for pride or even for her country. She does it for her friends. Her family. Love. I have things to fight for. People to face fears for and take risks for and even get hurt for. As she rides to battle with the childlike hobbit Merry riding with her, she says the words that I hold on to any time I feel weak and petrified in the face of of my fear. “Courage, Merry. Courage for our friends.”
The next time you think about avoiding your fears, ask yourself, “Who needs my courage right now?” And “Who could suffer if I don’t stand up and fight?”