May 6, 2020
When I turned 30 (no, I will not tell you how long ago that was) I made a pact with myself. I promised to reevaluate my auto responses to things that scared me. So, I told myself, if I come across an activity or situation that scared me, I would take time to actually consider doing it instead of automatically saying no. My mantra was “if it scares you, do it.” It didn’t always mean I’d muster the courage to take on new adventures but it did mean I’d take a second or third look at a situation rather than dismiss it out of hand.
Fast forward a couple of years. I’m spending the summer of 2010 serving as a counselor for The Ulster Project, a summer long peace making program for Northern Irish teens who come to the US to experiment with building relationships and working through social difference. Every summer the Ulster Project of East Tennessee takes the teens (half from Northern Ireland, half from the US/half Catholic, half Protestant) to Dollywood for a day of fun. It’s the highlight of the summer! It was for me too, until a fellow counselor said to me “ride this rollercoaster with me!!!”
She wanted to ride Thunderhead, a wooden coaster wit horseshoe shaped curves and a top speed of 55 mph…So if you know me at all, you should know how much I HATE rollercoasters…But I remembered my challenge to myself. I thought long and hard. I reasoned and worked out all the risks. I looked my friend in the eye and, with as much passion as I could muster said “NO!, I AIN”T DOING IT!” She persisted…and wore me down with guilt and reassurances that she’d hold my hand the whole way through. I gave up and got in line.
I just want to say, she didn’t hold my hand all the way through. Not because she forgot or broke her promise but because I wouldn’t let go of the safety bar. That was the longest three minutes of my life!!! I don’t remember what any of it looked like. Nope. These eyes were closed for the entire ride, except for the brief moment my friend yelled at me to smile for the camera. If a picture paints a thousand words, this photo is an expository essay on fear.
Once we got off she said “Let’s go again!” I calmly and politely told her we could no longer be friends. I tried it once. It was not pleasant. I no longer feel obligated to be brave. So I walked to the other side of the park and spent an hour looking through Dolly’s costumes from over the years to distract myself from the residual muscle tremors caused by this wooden coaster. UGH!
Someone on social media somewhere recalled a story from her youth when she and her little sister were at a public pool. She desperately wanted to get her little sister to jump into the pool. She recounts how she coached and encouraged, guilted, bribed, and urged her kid sister to jump. “but I’m afraid” her sister cried out. Big sister recalled that at this moment an older woman swam by and raised her fist into the air and said to her little sister “Then be afraid! and jump in any way!”
It was then the big sister realized bravery and courage are not the absence of fear. Being brave meant doing the thing that scares you the most. Courage is having the heart-strength to act in spite of fear.
I appreciate this story because takes away the stigma of fear. Many times in our culture we are told that being afraid is a weakness, a flaw of character. I take issue with that. Fear is a natural response that our bodies have to protect us from danger. It is irresponsible to tell people that their fear is invalid or shows a lack of character or strength. Fear is a not a flaw of character or a weakness in morality. Fear is part of our response to stimuli that threaten or appear to threaten our wellbeing.
Sure, sometimes we let fear take control. The feeling of fear can overwhelm us and make navigating life more difficult. There are pathological responses to fear that are harmful or detrimental. What is important to remember is that these types of responses need careful, gentle therapeutic intervention. For those reactions to fear that are not pathological there is room for saying “so be afraid, then do it anyway!”
Loss, not matter what the loss, can cause fear responses. Traumatic loss is especially prone to creating a sense of fear. Post-traumatic stress is often characterized by hyper-vigilance and preoccupation with fear that the trauma will reoccur. So we accommodate our living to mitigate the fear response. Sometimes we get stuck in our fear responses and feel powerless to navigate around them.
The work of grief is reorganizing our lives post loss. Sometimes that means taking an honest look at our fears and anxieties arising from our loss. Reorganization is not working toward fearlessness. Reorganization means honestly acknowledging our fear, gently becoming its friend and companion, and taking agency over it.
Poet and author Khalil Gibran wrote this in his poem title Fear:
It is said that before entering the sea
a river trembles with fear.
She looks back at the path she has traveled,
from the peaks of the mountains,
the long winding road crossing forests and villages.
And in front of her,
she sees an ocean so vast,
that to enter
there seems nothing more than to disappear forever.
But there is no other way.
The river cannot go back.
Nobody can go back.
To go back is impossible in existence.
The river needs to take the risk
of entering the ocean
because only then will fear disappear,
because that’s where the river will know
it’s not about disappearing into the ocean,
but of becoming the ocean.
Loss has a way of making us vigilant and watchful for danger. That’s expected and normative. It’s ok to be afraid. Its’ ok to be uncertain or unsure. It’s ok to tremble at the vastness of the sea of unknown before you. Life is different after loss. Everything changes. What was known before, what is behind you, whatever you carved out of the rock and dust of the past, is gone. You cannot go back. Before you lies a vast unknown. Fear of that unknown is normal. After all, you’ve never gone this way before. You have no idea what lies just there beyond your seeing.
Fear may or may not disappear. I’m still terrified of rollercoasters. But I know, should I choose to, I have the ability to do it anyway. I’m afraid of many things but onward I must go. I cannot stay there in the past. I cannot control the unknown future. What I can do, here and now, is place my feet firmly on the ground, and step forward, bit by bit. I must learn to live and operate in the here and now with my past informing me and my future beckoning me forward. It’s ok if I’m afraid. I am becoming something new!
Love and Light!