“Did you put the snakes away?” are the first words that blurt out of my mouth after the usual pleasantries.
“Yes, they are locked up in a room but you can see them if you want” the host volunteers.
“Oh god absolutely not”. Puzzled looks around me, mostly because I live in an area where snakes are as commonplace as grass, especially rattlers. So how am I managing, they are all thinking?
Not all fears are created equal. There are illogical childhood fears we conquer with experience – I remember being tucked in bed by a sitter, waiting awake for my parents to come home, unable to sleep, prey to the irrational fear they might die in a car accident (I had read way too many books about orphans and their miserable lives in Dickensian institutions).
Then there are innate fears Jung would probably explore through archetypes, such as my deep aversion to snakes which, by the way, I don’t think has anything to do with sex, Dr. Freud (although sofagirl, with a degree in psychology, begs to differ). I am also scared of heights and would never dream of jumping off a plane, nor have I any overwhelming interest in extreme sports, or even diving for that matter. I am quite content watching the Nat Geo channel.
Yet, I consider myself a fearless person, an assumption I have been challenging of recent. Have I been equating fearlessness with the recklessness of youth, when life lies ahead in a forever continuum?
As sofagirl pointed out recently, fear can be a great motivator. I consider myself fearless because I was never scared of not succeeding, of unforeseen consequences or of the truth. Rather, I have always been plagued by anxiety, mostly about events or circumstances that haven’t occurred yet and might never occur. I am a master at creating scenarios that will most likely never come to pass, of the “what is the worst that can happen” variety. If annoying to those who are close to me, I have come to view this tendency as a tool I need during my decision-making that normally doesn’t deter me from action.
Yet, talking to a relative about the subject, he argued that, in modern society, where survival does not depend anymore on our fight or flight mechanism being constantly activated, fear has little place, it’s just a hindrance. I wouldn’t go that far, although my fear of height and snakes does serve little purpose in my everyday life. And those with fear related paralyzing psychosis would probably agree.
We learn to live with our fears, we conquer some and we keep others at bay or, rather, we are mostly conditioned to suppress them. When they become an obstacle, we are taught to seek help in trying to overcome them. At best, we push through them and come out at the other end unscathed.
The fear I know I will never conquer is fear of death and the physical suffering it might entail. I am afraid I will not come out at the other end mumbling “That wasn’t so bad”. Because that is what fear has been for me – a giant hand behind my back daring me to do what I was most afraid of: speak up, talk to a boy, accept an unlikely offer, jump into the water for the first time. But in each and every case, it represented one face of the coin, implying a choice on my part. Fear taught me to choose, sometimes the hardest route or the most unlikely. But what if there is no choice? I cannot choose not to die or to leave a plane about to crash. Easy to say that I can choose to be present in the moment no matter what happens. I am travelling on the zen road but have not reached that destination yet.
As to the snakes, – the fear of which is termed “ophidiophobia” – I could choose to conquer my fear by allowing myself to touch one. The snakes, poisonous or otherwise, that populate my garden and I have reached an entente cordiale and we mostly choose not to bother each other. But it would be easy to knock on my neighbours’ door and ask them to help me move past this nonsense – they would certainly oblige. Still, would there be a purpose?
What prompted all this musing about fear (sofagirl will have her take on it in the next few weeks) was a Ted Talk by writer Karen Thompson Walker that sofagirl uncovered a while ago. Here is the complete talk – worth watching.