The Shape of Fear.
Thou shalt not kill — the Sixth Commandment — biblical, therefore, immutable. Except in times of war. Or if your life or the life of someone you love is threatened.
I was standing in the bathroom with my hands over my ears, but couldn’t escape the dull thud of the shovel announcing the separation of the snake’s head from its body. I felt sick. I wanted to cry and run away, but instead I walked into the living room where my landlady had just killed the intruder. She leaned on her weapon, safe in her green knee-high rubber boots.
She thoughtfully explained that the snake may not look dead, but it certainly was, while also assuring me it hadn’t suffered.
10 minutes earlier, I had walked in the door after work, arms full of groceries. Sophie, one of three cats, was under the low table by the door, which was not unusual. What caught my attention were two items in the middle of the floor: a pewter pitcher and a bottle of hot sauce that live on the top shelf above my stove. Emmylou, head cat and the usual suspect, might have knocked them off, but she’d been outside all day.
Before I had a chance to investigate further, I heard the petitioning meows of the second cat. I dropped the bags and went to find Celia, who was hanging for dear life on the bedroom window screen. After extricating her, I returned to the other room where Sophie stood frozen. Terror tore through me when I saw a snake inches away, poised and apparently ready to strike my baby.
In the same instant, Emmylou appeared in the doorway. I got a flash: a big cartoon ball crashing around the house, fur and scales flying — paws, forked tongue, hands, and tails shooting out in all directions.
I don’t know how, but I secured the cats. I grabbed the phone and called my landlady, snake eradicator extraordinaire, killing first and asking questions later. In that moment, I knew only one thing: my babies were threatened.
I’m struck by the power of myth. Racial memory is cellular, and every snake story I’ve ever heard, fact or fiction, reinforced my decision to sign that snake’s death warrant.
It all happened in some blurry state outside of time. Once the cats were safely sequestered, I felt the fear dissipate. I caught glimpses of other options. But I couldn’t tell what kind of snake it was — we lived on the side of a mountain where copperheads and rattlesnakes abound. If I didn’t keep my eyes on it, it might slither off into some secret snake-y spot only to reappear and harm us. I couldn’t live with that thought.
Still, on some level I knew something wasn’t right. But there was my landlady, armed with shovel and certainty.
I waited in the bathroom, unable to stomach the resolution I’d brought about. But denial — the ability to separate ourselves from the consequences of our actions — is strong stuff. My landlady and I quickly constructed a postmortem conversation that rationalized the murder.
Me: “I really couldn’t tell what kind of snake it was in that dark part of the room.”
Her: “Well, black snakes have been known to eat rabbits, so a small cat would certainly be fair game.”
Alone later with the lifeless body, I was overcome with grief and remorse. For some perverse reason, we had measured the snake after dragging it out onto the deck. Out in the sunlight, I could see this was God dressed as five magnificent feet of black snake.
No longer paralyzed with panic, I was left with a different picture. Whereas before, I saw this monster that threatened my precious cats, I now saw an ancient and loving spirit who had been with me all along, graciously doing his job out of sight, attending to the rodent population.
I spent the next couple of days examining the events while struggling to find the lesson. What could I have done differently? What could I do to prevent a similar situation? And why wasn’t I feeling anything?
My processing brought me face to face with the stark truth: my crisis of faith had caused the demise of an innocent being. My defenses crumbled and left me feeling cowardly, ashamed, guilty, disrespectful, remorseful, and deeply sad — sad for the snake and sad for me.
I realized the snake that was cornered, and whose life was threatened, shared the terror I had felt. I experienced a choking ache in my throat that I imagined the snake felt as the shovel came down and severed his head.
I cried a river of tears. I fully grasped the absolute devastation fear orchestrates. I could see a parallel with my pre-recovery cherished false belief about my alcoholic drinking — it’s mine, it has nothing to do with you. I felt deeply the pain and power of the truth that I am part of the whole, and that how I maintain my spiritual condition has an impact on all other beings.
I knew the snake had been sacrificed on the altar of my fear.
“Thou shalt not kill” suddenly shifted from being a facet of my integrity to being a high-minded principle that couldn’t stand against this corporeal threat. On those grounds, my fear-soaked brain justified abdicating responsibility for the choices I made; a jury of my peers wouldn’t convict me. But then neither could they confer absolution.
My heart still breaks when I think of that snake’s innocence and the price it paid for my fear. After days of crying, praying, journaling, and talking about it, the truth going in was different from the truth that came out. Had you asked me that morning if I was afraid of snakes, I’d have smiled and said honestly, “No, I used to be, but I’m over it.” In fact, I had been asked that very question on that very morning.
I was working with my gardening crew, and had come upon a larger-than-usual garter snake. I was standing perfectly still, admiring his green-ness, and whispered loudly to my snake-loving co-workers, “S-N-A-K-E!” They advanced quietly. One asked, “Are you paralyzed with fear?” I smiled and said with a little pride, “No, I used to be afraid of snakes, but I’m over it.”
As difficult as it was later for me to admit to being afraid of the black snake, I was more disturbed by the fact that I was afraid and unaware of it — a deadly combination. I peeled back layer upon layer of truth as I endeavored to bring myself to cosmic justice. I was given to understand that regardless of what other implications the situation had in my life on any level, at the bottom was fear.
When I grasped that thread and began to pull, it all unraveled into a clear message: there are no loopholes — spiritual laws can’t be broken, one can only break against them. There’s no special dispensation from the Universe for killing because you feel threatened. Or because you didn’t know you were scared.
I could see how much of my life was lived in fear — fear of pain, of loneliness, of being too fat, too old, of not having enough, of poison ivy, of my kitties getting hurt, of missing my TV show, of my toast getting burned, my email not working, not enough rain, too much snow.
As the litany grew, I became conscious of how I had been battling each manifestation of fear, much like cutting branches from a tree as opposed to cutting it down at the base.
When grief finally opened my heart enough, I found compassion for myself as someone who did the best she could in that moment. My level of compassion rose for anyone who commits acts of violence out of fear. And as I looked for ways to honor the snake-being, I found a commitment to take my spiritual discipline to a deeper level.
Words are just words until experience gives them life and meaning. Fear took a shape that finally got my attention, and a profoundly painful incident gave deeper meaning to my belief that we act out of fear or love. I can’t change what happened that August afternoon, but I can recall the deadly, devastating result of acting out of fear, and aspire to practice choosing love in every moment.
Becky Allen believes we’re all in this together, and sharing our stories better prepares us for that reality. She finds human behavior fascinating, and thus is delighted by the endless supply of material available for examination. Becky’s deep desire is to help develop language that more clearly communicates and facilitates understanding the changes in the morphic field of human consciousness resulting from the evolutionary shift of energy. Becky was born and raised at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah Valley, and now lives in a rural community near Richmond, Virginia. Oh, with (surprise!) two exceptionally garden-variety kitties. She writes to better understand herself and her fellow humans, the world around her, and to explore the infinite possibilities inherent in all beings.