“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” – Woody Allen
Fear. At a basic level, fear is an emotional response to a perceived threat. Essential, historically, to the survival of humanity. Yet a potential catalyst to the undoing of an individual.
It should probably be noted that this is just MY take on fear. For what it’s worth.
I’m not going to get all psychoanalytical here or even very philosophical, but it seems that fear can be the spark that saves a life or that gets us headed in the right direction. It can also, in a manner of speaking, end a life when it becomes paralyzing, when the threat is viewed as a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to happiness, success, dreams.
Although fear might be an instantaneous response to a specific threat at a particular moment in time (a reaction to stimuli in a present moment), some are layered. They’re not merely a reaction to that one instant, but are often threaded deeply, intricately, inextricably to other (often sundry) past experiences.
It figures, doesn’t it, that something so influential would be so complex.
Here are My Four Biggest Childhood Fears (in order of severity, not in chronological order, from ages six to eighteen):
DEATH (as in no longer alive, as in ran out of time, as in the end, finito . . . I’m talking from the perspective of a boy who had absolutely no desire to be off pursuing evidence of an afterlife or a lack there of . . . not as a youthful resistance to the concepts of heaven or hell or purgatory, but simply as an I-just-got-here reaction to the whole idea of shuffling off this mortal coil)
STAGE FRIGHT/PUBLIC SPEAKING (being the center of attention might be a more apt name for this one)
HEIGHTS (a fear of falling, really . . . not of climbing, not of being UP, for UP was one of my favorite places to be – as Xero says, being there often allows you to see what everyone else can see, but in a totally different way . . . okay, so I guess maybe I did sort of morph into a misfit on my own)
DOGS (that’s right, man’s best friend . . . although I have a genuine affinity for dogs, I was attacked by two of them when I was in first grade so every canine interaction I’ve had since then has begun/begins with all out fear)
If I were to dig deeper, I imagine those fears were related to very specific inciting incidents and they’ve given way to other fears, but I said I wouldn’t get all analytical so I won’t go digging right now. I may, however, allude to what I do recall of those inciting incidents – after all, we writers know how integral they can be to a good story):
Death – my fear of death started shortly after my birth. Back when I spent weeks each year in hospital beds (you know, trying not to die) that were completely engulfed by heavy plastic (oxygen tents were like being trapped in some ominous almost see-through box, they were like being stuck all alone in a car wash – without all the warm soapy fun – and with no way out).
One of the few things I remember about being a little boy was how difficult it was to see my parents through all that plastic. How far away they felt. The world seemed so wrong then: so distorted and dangerous and all of it was out of my control, out of everyone’s control which was beyond frightening.
Though it was even harder for my parents.
You know, if they had only realized then how many times future me (meaning my teen and young adult self) would give them a reason to think, if I catch you, I’m gonna strangle you . . . they may have reconsidered all that early concern. Well, my parents probably never thought that way . . . about me, that is . . . but I do have a little sister, remember . . .
From an early age, living just seemed like such a difficult trick to pull off.
Of course, when I got to eighth grade, I got so sick that one of my doctors told my mom, my gram, and me that I was on my way out. I’ll give that experience it’s own space another time, but (aside from an extreme fear of death that lasted until I was a high school senior) the three most important things that came out of that moment were:
1. The doc was flat-out wrong (‘nuff said)
2. I somehow recognized what my parents were going through and all that they did for me (i.e. I became mindful of things I had taken for granted)
3. I woke up each day after that thankful for another chance (as I have every day since – some people even told me that I adopted an Octagenarian’s Point Of View at age 14, but I think I really just adopted a we only get “one wild and precious life” so thank you very much outlook).
Sad thing is, despite my gratitude for each new day, I’ve still let fear keep me from doing the thing I’ve wanted most to do with my one wild and precious life. Until now, that is. Which is why this writing thing is so important to me.
We only get so many chances, after all.
So I need to keep after it now that I’ve finally allowed myself to chase my dream.
Stage Fright – This, I am quite sure, is an indirect result of bullying. Not the knuckle busting version, but the verbal one. The words, words, words version. The all eyes on you, whisper whisper hallways, can’t get away from the names version.
If you had asked boy me, I would have told you without hesitation that the whole “sticks and stones” mantra falls flat. As a teen, I’d have taken a brick upside the head over those ugly names any day. Because a brick can break your bones, sure, can break your body, but words were like some dark magic, some evil incantation, words could transform your very essence . . . your personality . . . they could transform who you were . . . in the eyes of everyone else.
And it’s a lot harder, I have found, to understand (even more to accept) that as long as you are you in your own eyes, the rest doesn’t really matter (so much harder to get to that point, let’s say, than to recover from a split lip or bruised ribs). Because when you’re a teen, that’s precisely when you’re trying so damn hard to figure out exactly who you are, which is why it’s also when who you are in everyone else’s eyes feels like the one thing that matters most.
Heights – this is more about the rise and fall (and fall, and fall) of a boy who climbed.
Well, it’s even more about being a somewhat klutzy boy whose brain works a whole lot faster and much more gracefully than his body, despite having a brain that’s all over the place (which, when you think about it, really puts in perspective just how clumsy the boy might be – as in someone lacking the balance, the control, the always-land-right-side-upness of a dancer or a gymnast or a ninja).
I climbed my neighbor’s backyard trees nearly every day. And I pretty much fell out of those trees every single time. On the way down. Always on the way down.
I’ve always loved UP. Still working on the landings though.
Dogs – my first girlfriend (let’s call her Hildy) was pretty, and smart, and nice, and six-years-old. I was also six!
We had show-and-tell back then and I had managed to capture an elusive and extremely rare (or not) lady bug in a peanut butter jar (this predated my snaring spiders, bees, newts, and an assortment of other creatures I am not allowed to name due to that being classified information).
I took my ladybug to Hildy’s house to share the joy of such a treasure with her.
On my way home (Hildy lived about three zigzag blocks away, so I walked), I turned at one street corner and realized that being in Hildy’s radiant presence had caused me to forget my prize. I turned to go back to her house (hey, having a reason to make two visits in one day might have been one of the best moves ever, except for the dogs).
Two cantankerous dogs, I might add, that lived down the street from me. Two ferocious beasts from hell (I was about to learn) that saw me change direction and (apparently having egos) thought it was because I was afraid of them. Ha!
Well, sure, I was afraid of them most of the time, but I didn’t even know they were out in the yard that day . . . without any leashes . . . with no one watching over them . . . with nothing holding back their insatiable fury . . . otherwise, I would have walked an entirely different way home. I mean, I was gangly and clumsy, but I wasn’t a complete idiot (despite what my sister might have told you).
Suffice it to say – dogs saw boy change direction, dogs growled fiercely and bared their wicked teeth, dogs gave chase, boy ran . . . dogs ran faster and sank their teeth into boy-flesh . . . on his back and his rump.
Even those seemingly innocent little Bichon Frises (that you find everywhere today lurking around ankles) flat out terrify me – for an instant. The moment I see them and they bark like high-pitched lunatics, I jump into fight-or-flight mode: my heart speeds up, my lungs tighten, my breathing becomes strained.
Then I remind myself that I once owned bunny slippers larger than them and I’m okay. But still . . .
You know, I hadn’t thought about it until this moment, but my passion for writing seems related to most of these early fears (okay, maybe not dogs or heights, though interestingly enough, UP is Xero’s favorite direction).
When I first started writing, before I ever really thought about the fact that I was writing, I exorcised my fear of death on page after page . . . of terrible poetry. I guess that’s sort of the pattern.
One mentor told me that developing poets often start out writing about death before they write about love, then birds, then nature, then . . . he broke down the hierarchy of the evolution of a poet (which, for all my sarcastic responses, seems rather accurate).
As I mentioned, in the beginning, I wrote a lot of awful poetry . . . about death. And later about love. And, in some instances (moments of cynicism mostly), the two became inseparable.
Writing helped me make sense not just of my ideas, but of my feelings. Of my fears.
In a way, it’s still doing that very thing. That’s one of the most beautiful aspects of art. Of course, sometimes fear can get in the way of our doing the thing we love.
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” ~ Joseph Campbell
Not just due to a fear to go to the dark places inside (for creating art tends to require a turning inward and a willingness to step into the silence and explore), as well as the wonderful places. Sometimes from a fear of failure. Or, ironically, fear of success. Fear of not having what it takes. Fear of being wrong or imperfect. Fear of being judged.
So many fears can rise up, can get in the way. Especially when they turn into anxiety.
That’s why finding like-minded people who share your passion can be helpful. Why having a support group is important even if it’s people who might not get what you do or why, but they recognize how much it matters to you. They get that what you’re doing is you being you.
There are all sorts of fears. And they can be quite debilitating!
Here are a few fears/phobias I hadn’t been aware of until today (I want to say that me making fun of myself for some of my fears doesn’t mean that I think phobias should be mocked, that’s not my intention here – I merely share a few that I had no idea even existed until just now, very serious fears which could potentially deprive someone of so much opportunity for growth and for happiness):
Allodoxaphobia– the fear of opinions (artists can’t afford to have this fear)
Bibliophobia– the fear of books (I might have adamantly resisted books as a boy, but I didn’t fear them . . . this is one that certainly gives a writer pause)
Monophobia – the fear of being alone
Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia – yes, that’s the word for a fear of long words
But there are other kinds of fear, too. Fun kinds!
When I was a boy, I loved scary movies. Until one movie ruined it for me. Well, maybe not ruined, but certainly set me back a bit.
Damn you, Steven Spielberg! That’s right I’m talking Jaws. But not for reasons you might think.
There I was, twelve-years-old and in the semi-dark theater, shoulder to shoulder with my dad, riveted to the scene at hand, with dozens of movie-loving strangers, completely wrapped up in the rapture of those special effects and that music when it happened.
It’s the scene when they find Ben Gardner’s boat dead in the water. You know the scene.
I won’t describe it, but after all the previous shark attack scenes masterfully building tension, tugging at my emotions, triggering my synapses, the fight or flight response ready to bubble over at any second, well, it’s little wonder that scene did it . . . you can watch part of the scene by clicking here (but it’s a bit graphic and tense, at least by 1970’s standards, so watch at your own risk).
Spoiler Alert – the moment the body bounces into the shot, the paw of a six-hundred pound gorilla–okay, maybe it was just my dad’s strong thick man hand cracking against my scrawny boy chest as he flinched, but it sure felt like I’d been struck by the serrated mouth of a hungry shark.
Lots of people screamed at that scene. I don’t think most of them, however, felt a very real impact in that moment. For years after that, I couldn’t sit next to someone at the theater. Talk about taking the romance out of date night.
Fear is one of those things we want to feel when we go to scary movies, isn’t it? I mean, they’re creating movies these days that ramp up the adrenaline and get you so hot-wired for fear that it’s almost like some illicit fix people crave – again and again.
Me, not so much.
Sure, I still like scary movies and I still like intense movies, only my recovery time is a bit drawn out these days. Sort of like how it takes me twice as long to heal from a sports-induced injury. I’m not saying I end up sleeping with the lights on for a week after a scary movie. I’m not saying that at all. Not out loud anyway.
Speaking of fun fears (or of laughing about them later on in life), my stage fright didn’t prevent me from singing on stage back in first (or was it second) grade. There were a half dozen of us (our gang, you might say), made up of me and Hildy and a couple other awesome girls and a couple of my coolest guy pals.
We performed The Lion Sleeps Tonight by The Tokens and it was a blast.
I remember practicing the dance moves in a few different houses (we called them dance moves, okay, let’s just leave it at that). Now that I think of it, though, we didn’t tend to practice at the same house two days in a row. Maybe the adults were trying to subtly tell us something
Any video evidence of the event has long been destroyed to protect, you know, the whole human race. Of course, if hypothetically a recording was sent to Area-51, you know for safe keeping, I wouldn’t be at liberty to discuss that sort of top secret thing, now would I?!
The funniest part is that I learned just this past week that my sister’s ringtone for when I call (damn smartphones anyway) is that very same song.
She even went so far as to tell my parents, “it was the only time he ever sounded good when he sang,” as if they hadn’t been in the house with me whenever I had attempted to croon. Which, I will admit, was NOT very often.
Some of the old neighbors still send me thank yous for that. But, I mean, hey sis, ouch!
“Do one thing every day that scares you.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
I wish I could say I took to the stage in a six-year-old attempt to do something that scared me. I honestly have no idea why we decided to perform that song. The entire class didn’t do it, our entire school didn’t do it. At least, I don’t remember that being the case.
All I know is that back then doing something with my friends was far more important (and more fun) than worrying about any possible negative consequences.
This was before I learned shame.
Which, I imagine, is why I had no fear at the time of being on stage. Or of being off-key.
“Fear,” wrote Frank Herbert, “is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”
And it can. And it will. And it does. If we let it.
Herbert continued, however, “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.”
Some of our struggles arise when we try to ignore our fears, when we avert our attention and pretend the thing inciting the fear doesn’t exist. Or when we focus on it so much it becomes the only thing we sense, it consumes our thoughts. Or sometimes when we resist the fear by pushing so hard against it that it’s as if we’re trying to force it back into the darkness from which it came.
Here’s a list of 10 “unbearable phobias” that could undo a life, that could keep one from living.
Only you know if fear (or maybe anxiety) get in the way of you doing the thing you want most to do. I hope it doesn’t. I hope that very much.
“In contrast to fear, anxiety is a general state of distress that is longer lasting than fear and usually is triggered by something that is not specific, even though it produces physiological arousal, such as nervousness and apprehension . . . Yet both fear and anxiety emotions are triggered in response to threat.”
Fear in one instance can lead, it would seem, to anxiety with regards to future instances. It’s about memories and associations and all that fun stuff, but while fear is a reaction to something that happens, anxiety seems rooted in anticipation (a reaction to something that may or may not happen in the future).
For a writer (and for just about anyone else, really), that can be quite problematic.
But here’s a pearl from George R. R. Martin to consider (from the second chapter in Game of Thrones):
“Bran thought about it. ‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’
‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.”
The only time you can be brave is when you’re afraid.
Fear is necessary then, it’s a prerequisite for courage, for bravery. So, the next time you’re standing at the mouth of that cave Joseph Campbell alluded to above, the next time you’re afraid to enter, remember that your fear might just be the exact thing you need to have if you’re going to be brave and enter, if you’re going to find the treasure you seek.
I paraphrase a sentiment I heard two different times this past week (once while watching a recent episode of The Walking Dead and the other while watching the movie The Croods) when one character claimed “fear is what keeps us alive” and another character replied, “no, fear is what keeps our bodies from dying . . .”
It’s bravery in the face of our fears that allows us to truly live.
So, why those photos, you might wonder?
Well, some people are afraid of sharks (count me as one . . . if you read above you’ll have a good idea why). And some people are afraid of children (who can blame them, really). So the first image seemed rather apt for a post about fear.
When I was a teen, one of our biggest collective daily fears as Americans was nuclear war. That was a very real threat, and was never that far from our minds.
Not to mention, it’s nearly Halloween and I thought they were awesome scary images.
Whatever it is you’re passionate about doing, keep after it. Don’t let fear get in your way!