What are you afraid of? Spiders? Flying? Snakes? Heights? Caterpillars? Needles? I once worked with someone in Dublin who had a fear of buttons. I thought she was making it up, but it turned out to be real (for her) and all her clothes had to be button-proof; it was zips and velcro all the way. Then there are fears that can be whipped up in people, given the oxygen of attention and publicity, like ‘coulrophobia’ – fear of clowns. To me, this one seems like a recent phobia. It spikes around Hallowe’en with young people telling each other how ‘freaked out’ they are by clowns, and fear so rampant that clown costumes have been banned from many parties.
How do we get to the other side of fear? Is it even possible? If you live in Ireland, the snakes one is easy, because there are none. With a fear of heights you can opt to rest terra firma and have a coffee in the Champ de Mars while the others go up the Eiffel Tower and wave down at you – you can always look at the photos afterwards! There are expensive courses available to combat fear of flying; involving simulators and then eventually going up for a short flight. And if that doesn’t work, you can feel virtuous about your reduced carbon footprint and get to know Ireland and Britain like the back of your hand. Ultimately, though, there are only so many things we can avoid and run away from in a well-lived life. Could it be, in respect of one’s fears that the only way out is through?
A few months ago my friend L. came to stay. I had forgotten that S. (he’s only 10) had left a large black plastic spider on my kitchen floor to scare me. I’m not afraid of spiders but I enjoyed the joke and kept the spider. The spider is now a forgotten, unobtrusive flatmate and sits on the kitchen windowsill. However, to say that L. was startled when she got up on the Saturday morning and spotted the beastie by the window is an understatement. I had no idea about her phobia. She told me about ‘exposure therapy’ (she had dabbled a little in it), and that sitting close to, and then eventually touching this fake spider was actually an important first step in overcoming the fear. Exposure to it could, under safe conditions, retrain her brain to stop sending the fear signals when (in this case) it was based on something exaggerated or illogical.
Sometimes, though, what we are afraid of isn’t clear-cut. It mightn’t be something you can quite name, or put your finger on. Often we live with a general sense of unease. One could be flippant and say we are afraid of getting out of bed in the morning, of experiencing the ongoing onslaught of negative news from around the world. Terror, danger, warning, threat, security, menace, peril… perhaps this constant narrative is chipping away at our inner serenity and making us intrinsically fearful. The fear attached to the ‘stuff of life’ can be the most debilitating: fear of speaking up when something’s not right at home or at work; fear of making a decision; fear of change in family circumstances – children leaving home, breakups, death. Undeniably, fear is a horrible feeling, but it does seem to build and take grip the more we push it away and refuse to feel it. Then, just when you conquer one fear you can be taken to another edge with the next challenge hot on its heels. I have no solutions. I could wheel out the trite book title, ‘Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway’, but that’s meaningless when you are paralysed and in the grip. So if you can’t do ‘it’ (whatever the ‘it’ fear is) I would say, just do something – any small action, step, movement – and you will begin to melt that ice-cube of fear.
When Dawn Markova was diagnosed with cancer, it seemed to give her clarity of purpose and fearlessness that can sometimes be the unlikely partner of tragedy. In a quest to live her life fully, she wrote a collection of short stories entitled, “I Will Not Die an Unlived Life.” This collection includes the words:
“I will not live an unlived life
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible, to loosen my heart,
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise……”