Sunday, February 25, 2007

Fear

As a Canadian exchange student in Germany, I was entitled to participate in a week-long educational field trip to West Berlin. By "educational field trip," what was meant was an opportunity to go out to the discos every night and pretend to be really cool. On the first of these nightly disco outings, I carefully sipped a few shot glasses of Bailey’s Irish Cream and, upon realizing that I was ever-so-slightly unsteady on my feet, concluded that – gasp! – I was drunk. Upon my return from Berlin, this descent into debauchery occasioned several confessional long-distance phone calls as well as an anguished study of the New Testament passages condemning drunkeness. In the short term, however, having crossed the rubicon and lost my drinking virginity, as it were, I was free to toss back a few lemonade-and-vodkas on subsequent nights (in for a penny, in for a Deutschmark, I guess).

By the end of the week, I was exhausted. While my more experienced roommates planned yet another all-night disco marathon, Pam and I decided to stay at the hostel and catch up on some sleep. Shortly after we were left to ourselves, a clattering at the window announced the presence of some guys we had met the night before. They were basically nice, polite German boys: we had, as I recall, even accepted a ride from one of them, whom we had nicknamed Mickey Mouse for reasons that I can no longer remember (perhaps a play on the German pronunciation of Michael?). In any case, when Mickey Mouse and his friends showed up outside our window, hollering our names, Pam and I panicked: we hurriedly shut out the lights and then huddled under the covers, willing them to go away. Much of our terror arose from the fact that our hostel did not feature locks on the individual doors; there was a lock on the outside door, to which all of us had a key, but if the Mickey Mouse gang managed to breach those defences, there would be nothing stopping them from barging right into our room.

It was a terrifying half-hour or so before they gave up and went on their way, and even at the time I was aware that it was my own behaviour that was scaring me – if I had simply called out the window, saying that we weren’t interested in going out, I would have felt no fear. But the act of hiding under the covers in the dark created its own sense of peril.

"That is the way fear serves us," George MacDonald writes: "it always sides with the thing you’re afraid of." Fear weakens our judgment, saps our energies, lends imaginary strength to our enemies. I’d like to say that since that night in Berlin I’ve always faced my fears boldly, but such is not the case. There are all kinds of fears that govern my daily decisions, that limit my freedom and perpetuate my perception of myself as a potential victim. I fear Rape, and so I don’t walk alone at night, ever. I fear Physical Injury, and so I don’t drive on icy roads or go on the pirate ship ride at the fair. I fear Failure, so I stay well within the bounds of my own expertise. I fear People Getting Mad at Me, so I censor my speech and even my thoughts. I fear Rejection, so I sit home waiting for friends to call me, rather than picking up a phone and calling them. I fear, more than anything, Regret, and so I work hard, cover my bases, and hope for the best.

I am not an adventurous person; I don’t thrive on the giddy sensations provided by such fear-defying activities as bungee-jumping and calamari-eating (I know, I know, calamari are really tasty – but they’re squid, and all the deep frying in the world isn’t going to change that). Perhaps for that reason, I surprise myself sometimes with the things that I don’t fear.

I don’t fear Grief, or Sadness. When the news of my ex-husband’s affair came to light, I was plunged into a deep and sudden abyss of grief, but it was only a few days before the thought occurred to me, "I can do this. I’m good at this." Facing emotional pain makes me feel strong; I can plant my foot in the midst of searing heartache and feel the breakers washing over me without being overwhelmed by them. There is something soul-expanding about sadness; I can feel the borders of myself widen and deepen. And in the midst of such sadness, small pleasures become almost unbearably sweet: the vivid colour of a rain-washed yellow leaf is enough to make my heart quake with happiness.

Likewise, I do not fear Embarrassment. This discovery is more puzzling to me. At one time, embarrassment was a regular source of wretchedness for me, but I rarely feel embarrassed anymore. I quite regularly do things that other people would find embarrassing. I do a waltz or a Charleston in front of my giggling students; I reveal things on my blog that sensible people keep to themselves. (Fairly often, I feel a low-level embarrassment after I post something unusually revealing, but this never stops me from doing it again.) I’m not entirely sure why this is the case, though. Perhaps where grief and sadness have the pleasurable side-effect of increasing my sense of self-importance, my capacity for embarrassment has decreased as I’ve let go of the ambition to appear important to others. (Don’t get me wrong: I still have a sometimes pathological need to be liked, trusted, and even admired: what I do not seek these days is hierarchical superiority or the illusion of dignity.)

The things I value most in my life, I’ve achieved in spite of my fears. I fell in love even though doing so was against all the rules for healthy recovery from a broken marriage. I wrote my entire dissertation in ten months, after two years of being paralyzed by self-doubt. I drove my car through downtown Toronto at night in order to meet a gorgeous and congenial group of fellow mommy-bloggers. I am a cautious, fearful person, but it’s good to know that when it matters, I can be brave.

21 comments:

jen said...

it's the spectrum, isn't it? joy and sorry, fear and courage...we can't have one without the other...and fear can restrict or expand depending on how we face it.

what a lovely post.

cinnamon gurl said...

I know what you mean. Flying is a big fear for me, but I can do it if the destination is important enough to me.

Great post.

Aliki2006 said...

I find fear crippling sometimes--personal fears are the worst. Some of them are easier to overcome then others--I suppose it's a lifelong battle.

Beck said...

Fear dominates my life and almost all of the good things have come when I have managed to struggle out of that for a while. On the other hand, I've had - and I'm not going to elaborate - many of the kinds of experiences that would make one extremely and rationally fearful, so it's not something I often feel the need to fix.
On another note - is that "Generous Orthodoxy" book good?

Andrea said...

That is lovely.

And I think it's hilarious that in nearly identical circumstances, you were hiding and I was out riding. What a perfect example of a difference in approach.

anna said...

Painful as they can be, I think sadness and grief serve to connect us to the world we live in. Fear does the opposite, it keeps us apart and at a distance. It's hard to really feel alive when you are afraid.

bubandpie said...

Beck - I'd say that Brian McLaren is a must-read, and Generous Orthodoxy is a good place to start (in that it can occasionally be found outside the "Twenty-Something" section of the Christian bookstore, which I'm often embarrassed to find myself shopping in - but note how that doesn't stop me: I am impervious to embarrassment). There are aspects of his approach that turn me off, but still - I think he is a prophet. (So glad to see someone noticing my renewed obsession with Library Thing! I've been meaning to add John Stackhouse's Humble Apologetics, which I also loved - another one of those enjoyably oxymoronic titles.)

Andrea - Hehe. When I read your references to the German exchange program I thought the same thing: it's like you and I are two halves of the same person, in the yin and yang sense.

KC said...

That you can find, and meet with dignity, the soul expansion of deep sadness and grief, is truly amazing to me. I've never handled it well, or ever felt any kind of control over loss.

I am so in awe of this post.

marian said...

"There is something soul-expanding about sadness; I can feel the borders of myself widen and deepen."

Lovely and true. There have been moments when- dare I say?- I have actually embraced and even relished the challenge of pushing though the waves.

mamatulip said...

As always, B&P, great post -- I really like how you can elaborate on what scares you and what doesn't, and offer reasons/thoughts about why. I'm an anxious person, a worrier, and there are times when fear dominates what I think and feel. You've given me good food for thought here.

And I feel the same way about calamari.

nomotherearth said...

I fear rejection, and it's so true that good things come when you overcome that fear.

I am writing a paper on Daniel MacIvor (Cdn playwright/actor), and he happens to be in town doing shows. Normally I would never be so bold as do anything about it, but I sucked it up and contacted him, and we're meeting so I can interview him! I'm awfully scared, and I know I'm going to be all stupid when I meet him, but I'm still doing it! Baby steps.

kittenpie said...

It's funny, this was my reaction to your letter to yourself - I wish I could have told my teen self to have less fear, to plunge in and be bold, do the things I secretly wanted to. We do let ourselves be limited by our own selves, don't we?

wordgirl said...

This is a beautifully thoughtful post. I don't have a need to be liked...but I don't relish being UN-liked. What I just want is to matter.

mad hatter said...

It's funny. I love walking alone at night. I insist on doing it b/c despite my fears the statistics reassure me that I will be safe. Yes, I play it smart and choose my neighbourhoods, but I'll be damned if I'll give up an activity that gives me such pleasure. And, yes, I have given it up now in favour of the crib monitor but I do hope to get it back someday.

A favourite memory of mine is walking for 4 hours straight in the middle of the night in Edmonton after a painful break-up. I had my discman on and I listened to Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville over and over and over again: "I was feeling 6'1", instead of 5'2" and I loved my life and I HATED YOU!!!" Oh the sweet emotional release.

I don't fear embarassing myself but I do fear being humiliated. I could see myself dancing in front of students or revealing too much on my blog and not feeling one bit embarassed. However, the time I danced to hard at a wedding when I was wearing a tight fitting lace bodice and no bra and I chaffed and started to bleed (from the tit!!!), I was mortified for days. It was positively humiliating. I still fear moments like these.

kgirl said...

It's funny, because of all the bloggers I read, yours most often inspires me to write about things that are outside of my comfort zone.

of course, wherever I go, I formulate an escape route, because, well, zombies, you know?

bubandpie said...

kgirl - Welcome back, my friend. I've missed you.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I so admire your candor. I think my fears are opposite to yours... I'm afraid to be open emotionally. I thought I'd gotten better over the years but the other day I realized that I was hiding (or just failing to reveal) my feelings to my very own husband! Must. Work. On. That.

Jenifer G. said...

You know it was a good post when you don't know what to say first!

I try very hard not let fear control me, but having children has elevated fear to a whole new level.

I too find it quite easy to reveal things in emails or on my blog, but in person it is another story. As Jennifer (Ponderosa) said I to find myself holding back, and that includes with hubby.

There is just a very private, deep part of me that I like knowing and have hard time sharing. I can be very warm, but at the same time there is a much colder side and while I don't think I come across as cold, I just don't let people in easily. I think there are many circumstances that explain (as Beck said) my behavior, be it as it may that is how I am. I try to be conscience of it, but it is not always easy.

Oh. Calamari. Yuck. You and I would not faired well on the Survivor "eat the native dish" episode!

Sandra said...

I really love and appreciate this on so many levels B&P. Some of the sweetest things that have come to my life have been in spite of fear.

Sarah said...

reading your posts makes me feel a little more brave to blog more authentically.

Thanks B&P...

ewe are here said...

I've been struggling with quite a bit of fear and anxiety lately... this was a really lovely, timely post for me.