“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 conventions, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease.
It begins with your mind, always. One moment you are feeling calm, self-possessed, happy. Then fear, disguised in the garb of mild-mannered doubt, slips into your mind like a spy. Doubt meets disbelief and disbelief tries to push it out. But disbelief is a poorly armed foot soldier. Doubt does away with it with little trouble.
You become anxious. Reason comes to do battle for you. You are reassured. Reason is fully equipped with the latest weapons technology. But, to your amazement, despite superior tactics and a number of undeniable victories, reason is laid low. You feel yourself weakening, wavering. Your anxiety becomes dread.
Fear next turns fully to your body, which is already aware that something terribly wrong is going on. Already your lungs have flown away like a bird and your guts have slithered away like a snake. Now your tongue drops dead like an opossum, while your jaw begins to gallop on the spot.
Your ears go deaf. Your muscles begin to shiver as if they had malaria and your knees to shake as though they were dancing. Your heart strains too hard, while your sphincter relaxes too much. And so with the rest of your body. Every part of you, in the manner most suited to it, falls apart. Only your eyes work well. They always pay proper attention to fear.
Quickly you make rash decisions. You dismiss your last allies: hope and trust. There, you’ve defeated yourself. Fear, which is but an impression, has triumphed over you.”
~ Yann Martel (Life of Pi)
Fear, for me, started when I was five. Up until then, I’d never heard of it.
I thought we were immortal, let alone my own superpowers — what else could account for all the miracles I was making with my invisible magic wand? — and there was nothing else but life: unlimited, unedited, eternal, juicy, tactile life, with giggly breath and bubbly toes. And I touched it.
One day, after an unusual “but why? but why? but why?” my mother broke the news… “What do you mean we are going to die?” I asked, nearly stabbed to death by this awareness. “Even us?!…”
“I’m afraid so,” she replied.
“But…I thought only bad people get Death…” I had been suspicious for a while though — like when some kids I knew lost both of their parents in a car accident…It didn’t make any sense. Parents are generally good people…it must have been a glitch in the system, I thought.
“So we’re not special?…Like, does this mean we could die in our sleep?” I tried to understand, as a thick, dark cloud was getting ready to rain and thunder over my head for years to come. It didn’t seem fair to me that our life could be stolen without any previous warning.
“Well, not necessarily in our sleep but… at some point, we will…”
That was my first Introduction to Terror. Looking back, I wish I had been spared this course ’til college. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been as tragic had I grown up in a society that viewed death as a natural, side effect of life.
But most people don’t experience the first death – the death of the ego, of their social construct, of their possessions (dead plastic things, much deader than death); the destruction that brings new life, the painful letting go, the hall of shame out of Eden, the walking through fire, the ache, the faceless void, the abyss, the fall, the insurmountable darkness, the dark-blue choking loneliness, the demons in the mirror, the irreversible loss. And when they do, they cover it up with life-less distraction.
They don’t, as C.S. Lewis put it, “die before they die,” so when they finally leave the world altogether the pain has doubled (if not tripled or quadrupled) – they have to say goodbye to both, their neglected, inner treasure and all their other imaginary plastic selves. This is the real tragedy of death, the excess of goodbyes. So we should travel light.
But I was accidentally born there and then — and nurtured by this type of scared and scary people.
There are three types of fear that have shaken my life up to date – from the most basic to the most complex, overlapping each other and intertwining with my sense of self, ever since that early Age of Innocence collapsed.
I’m sure you can see yourself in at least one. After all, you’re 99% Me…or I, You — or Us, Life.
Fear of Death.
My worst enemy during the first decade of my life. After finding out that we weren’t in fact, immortal, I’d stay up and pray every single night, pray that we didn’t die that night, pray that I could see the world again, tomorrow. And woke up tired every day, with gratitude instead of eyes.
Maybe this is what made each hour intense and infinite, filling it with indescribable childish wonder. While I was alive, I could do anything! Only death was impossible. So when the night came, I shivered. I couldn’t control life while asleep. I tried to stay awake as long as possible. And I kept praying.
Fear of Love or the Lack Of.
My second decade on earth was plagued by this fear. The awkwardness of going from child to adult in just a few years, the ew, the awww, the oh, the ouch, the om…
Why did love hurt? It’s like discovering America when you’re headed to India. What the hell is this new planet, and how did I end up here, and why are people hanging upside down?
Why the sweet pain? Why not just sweet or just pain? Who had this idea of mixing both? Are pain and love inevitably linked? Does every Utopia rise from the ashes of its entropy? Do you also have to die to the hands of so-called-love in order to eventually experience it in its depth and wholeness? I was sick to my stomach.
Fear of Failure.
Third decade: welcome to Adulthood. And I failed (often miserably), failed at nearly everything I tried, about 100 times out of 101, only to confirm all my fearful, misguided assumptions. My initial, 5-year old question, being asked and answered by Life, in the same tone, again and again… And the frustrated protest in the back of my still-5-year-old throat, growing fainter and older and wearier with each blow: “But I had thought, I had hoped, I had wished…”
In my forever optimistic childish mind, I would have never imagined that my mother’s answer to my tragic question regarding our mortality would be…Yes! And never, not in a million years, could I have anticipated all the blows that followed, in nearly the same fashion… Or did I secretly do?
Just like our trust in ourselves and our basic goodness is a map to life’s hidden treasures, isn’t our fear also just another map to the self-authored tragedies that do their best, time after time, to keep us from these treasures?
It’s the same script being written over and over. The same movie playing. The only elements rotating in and out of our carefully built, domesticated universes are the supporting actors and the setting. But the protagonists – the storytellers, we – remain unchanged.
D.E.A.T.H (Dirt Enters At The Heart) ~ Saul Bellow
So how do we stop running from our worst enemy? How do we turn around, and – shaking like a leaf – face our giant shadows? May cause excessive urination.
I’m afraid of relationships ending, of people leaving, of creatures dying, of nature degenerating, of mutant food, of pesticides, of falling in love (again), of not falling in love (again), of having children, of not having them, of Monsanto, of illness, of idiocy and illiteracy, of being hit by a truck or a train, of being in a plane crash, of sharks, of bats, of spiders, of jellyfish, of cockroaches, of breaking my neck and being paralyzed from the head down, of getting struck by lightning, of losing my mind, of ghosts, of zombies, of pandemics, of Ebola, of the end of the world, of being unloved, of being too loved, of being different, of being ugly, sick, stuck, old and alone, of failing, of suffering, of being lied to, of being hurt…
As Montaigne so wisely put it, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.”
But when you turn around and face the monsters in your closet, strange things do happen. I call it The Alchemy of Enough, the Power of I, the Here is Where this Chapter Ends Because I Am the Author of this Book and I Say So – the strength that comes when you realize that no one else can save you, because you truly are “the captain of your soul, the master of your fate” in the deepest sense of the word.
Could it be that our fear is more afraid of us than we are of her? Even crazier, all it takes to disarm her is to say it is so. You leave the Matrix the moment you decide to leave the Matrix. We are symbolical animals. We live through signs. Nothing means anything until we agree to it. We have that authority.
The shadow is real – it’s not imaginary. You can see it on the wall. It’s huge, grotesque and terrifying. But it’s just that, a shadow of your smallness. And your smallness, well, quite small… it couldn’t interfere with your greatness if it tried – unless you let it. You’re both, the author and the main character in your story.
A demon’s shadow grows five times its size on the walls of our imagination. (I know this because I used demon measuring tape.) I can sense their discomfort when I go past the Shadow to the Thing, past the Symptom to the Cause. They don’t want to be found out – because truth disarms, aids and abets love and love sustains life and life conspires with you, not against you, you are her child!
So say your fears out loud. Shout them over the rooftops. Come clean. It’s embarrassing. It hurts a little to even try. But when you dare to look them in the eye, your demons lose their power.
It’s like falling in love with a pretty face but empty head. After you face it long enough, a face is just a face. What more is there to it? It’s human nature. Once you assimilate anything (a new face, a new world, a fear, a condition) it becomes a part of you and, as such, it ceases to constantly affect, surprise or disarm you. The only thing that amazes is Life – abundant flowing life. The rest gets boring.
And so it is with Fear. What more is there to fear other than the fact that, yes, I’m afraid, I’m terribly afraid, pee-my-pants-scared-shitless…Now, what needs to be done? Get it together!
Georgia O’Keefe, one of the most relevant artists of the twentieth century, recognized as Mother of American Modernism, shared her scary little secret: “I’ve been afraid every single day of my life, but I’ve gone ahead and done it anyway.”
This life often plays like an indie film where the main character is allowed to inexplicably disappear 20 minutes before the end. I used to accept this. I used to think: It’s okay, I can take it, I’m so Indie… It was too good to be true, anyway, I should have known this was coming. And I’d sit through the rest of the film, watch it end because hey, I paid for my ticket, so read the credits upwards and backwards, translate them to Esperanto in case there’s any hidden meaning, endless question marks popping out of my eyes days, months, even years later.
I wrestled and argued with reality, tried to understand the intellectual behind the “lectual” – thinking, just wait, just give it another turn, just compromise your heart a little longer, the aha will come…at some point. Maybe not now, maybe not later, maybe twenty years from now or on my death bed (or in the afterlife, whatever that means)… Someday I’ll understand the Bigger Plan, the Destiny, the Purpose, the Amen, the Hallelujah. All the mute Angels will finally sing to me then.
They say this is “trust” in things not yet seen – I say this is fear, of things already seen, the ones we hide from, the ones that could shake our foundation to the core and truly transform our life from the inside out.
Marianne Williamson, said it best: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”
So now I disagree with my previous self. Lately, I think that whatever is great it has to be true, right here and right now. And if it’s not yet true, then let me help it materialize. And if I’m not allowed to make a dream come true, I better stay awake or dream another. I now punch screens that show me lies and I use the books I don’t like as toilet paper. I don’t rewind anymore, I delete. I get rid of all the stories I’m not allowed to co-author with life.
I don’t have time for the stars to align (and neither do you). It’s later than we think. And those rocks are a million years late for everything. So spare us your galactic flashlights, Universe, here on earth we’re used to seeing in the dark. Our life is ours and nobody else’s. And here’s one irrevocable truth about this Life: It’s passing through our fingers.
Every step is a second chance to make it or break it. Whatever has been written about and for you by others is not valid. It doesn’t – it shouldn’t – exist. You can safely delete any story that doesn’t belong to you and ask your so-called-Destiny to get her fake hands off your soul. She sure as hell ain’t got your copyrights.
Only life can generate more life. I have no idea what Death is but I hope they let me write you a letter once I get there. So this leaves us Fear as the Number One Enemy of Life.
“The matter is difficult to put into words. For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face with your mortal end, nestles in your memory lie a gangrene: it seeks to rot everything, even the words with which you speak of it.
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 future attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”
~ Yann Martel (Life of Pi)
I wish I wrote this from the future, and I could happily confirm to you, dear twenty-first century prehistoric creature, that we, homo creative sapiens of 2149 AD (or however long it takes us to figure this out) have still not gotten rid of our fear, but we’ve finally understood that we’re not supposed to, that our parasites are good sometimes. They get the dirty job done and help regulate our body functions.
Be glad you’re afraid of jumping out of a third-floor window.
At this point in the future – post-earth, sad to say – we’ve finally learned how to co-exist with our fear, how to use it to fuel our imagination, how to create more fearlessness out of it, how to blend it with our wildest dreams; how not to sweep it under the rug, how not to disappear on it… But to show up, every day, to look her in the eyes; and if need be, even hold her slippery reptilian goblin hand and then, and just because we can, do the unthinkable, the I can’t believe I fucking did it, the wonderful, the crazy, the impossible, the impractical, the uncomfortable but necessary, the real you and the truthful me.
With, not without, our fear.
But why do we have to wait another 200 years? Why can’t we dance right now?
P.S. What are you afraid of? I’d love to hear.
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