When you first start feeling less afraid, you want someone to pinch you. Is this real? And do I deserve it? After the exhaustive stretch of hyper-vigilance and over the shoulder gazing, of expecting lurking danger at every turn, the realm of trust and serene neutrality can feel like a trick. Sleight of hand only, though – just smoke and mirrors. You’re awake and it’s real and you actually are less afraid. Then, you just want to test it out. You want to venture out. You want to go out or move out or rock out. You want to look life squarely in its big bold face. And if you’re lucky enough to do that testing and find that, damn life is still scary but so what, onward! then you have figured out at least one truth of life that holds depth and weight.
All that can be observed on the larger macro/societal level also makes sense within an individual. At every turn I notice extensive yeah buts on all issues, most closely ones related to hatred and fear. And this is what happens within me, too; some stubborn staunch voice chimes in with the insistence that there is a catch to every attempt to get free. To not be afraid – but there are endless things to fear! To forgive a villain – but think again of what he did! To treat myself with unconditional love – but what if you start getting lazy! To assume the best out of life – but tragedies happen everyday! And they do. This is true. Fear is of course justified and called for, as is hatred, but what is the end game? Just endless stretches of misery, I tell you. And long ago I decided to sober up from my addiction to suffering.
I lived my life for many years in, not widening circles like Rilke but shrinking ones like – Winnie the Pooh? Rabbit, too? And Eyore… sheesh, they all apply. I sometimes think I would have made a great architect (or at least a constructor of walls and drawbridges) because I knew how to make my life enclosed, hidden, protected. Even after I pulled myself off my bathroom floor once again and started to get my act together at twenty five, for the next five years, I stayed quite afraid. Naturally, though. When you’ve relied on hydrocodone and vodka just to shop at the market, it takes some time to do the rest so stripped. And you know what they say about the broken shoelaces – sometimes grocery shopping is a helluva lot harder than finishing the degree or starting (and quitting) the career or falling in and out of love. Maybe it’s just life, and it’s all of us. Widening or shrinking rings. One can go on limitlessly it seems; the other eventually collapses into itself and has no place to go but out anyway. So this must be the place.
I remember when I started to feel afraid most of the time. I woke up one morning at nine years old, and I didn’t feel happy. I was supposed to go to the beach with my best friend and her dad, and it didn’t fill me with that hopeful everything is possible feeling. What if it’s cold? What if they pack ham sandwiches instead of turkey? What if I get a sunburn? I just wanted to stay in bed. Tall order for a fourth grader.
By fourteen I had reason enough to feel scared and reason enough to feel sad. And angry. Drugs, alcohol, just what the doctor ordered. Rebellion, music, boys, bring it. Cynicism, doubt, come on down. Not that I really was cynical. I always believed in the transcendent and the hopeful; I always favored the innocent. I was a bit too sweet and sensitive for the big bad world of running it all down the drain. Even Valium, of all things, made me anxious. But I was afraid and angry, and the sunlight hurt my eyes. I learned how to wall as much as possible off so that I could keep out what I perceived to be threatening. And by default, I kept a lot out.
I was never much of a risk-taker and instead sought control and guarantee at every turn. Actually rather nice of some faction of my psyche, because it was just trying to protect me from danger, but it also kept me far from adventure and great leaps of faith. I see it all the time in the world, how afraid many of us are, and it is always those who never throw caution to the wind who ought to. (Those who live in constant rebellion might benefit from a dose of healthy fear.) I have slowly over time learned to take more risks. Step by step. Bird by bird. I have learned that everything I have ever feared hasn’t exactly happened, and even the actual scary things haven’t been so bad. Fear and worry are, for lack of a better term, huge lying assholes.
It’s cliche as hell, but so much really makes sense only in hindsight. We have experiences and they’re pure – they just are, totally free from maps and connected dots, but then we have more and look in the rearview and see, huh, that’s a bit changed now. Huh, I did that with such a different spin. Huh, I guess I’m not like that these days. Huh, fancy that, I feel so much less afraid. I noticed it at first in tiny glimmers here and there – moments of peace in the midst of hand-wring anxiety and dread of having to do anything that seemed remotely uncomfortable or tricky or unknown.
I think if we expand in widening circles it’s because something in the center of us is softening. And what a paradox it is, because only by growing in strength and resolve do we soften and allow and take it all a little slower. I think we see this most powerfully when we let ourselves be loved.
I always thought that suffering made it difficult to love others – au contraire. It makes it difficult to let others love you. The hedges are high, the walls impenetrable stone. Fear makes us defend, and everyone becomes an opponent. What’s your motive? My strongest transition from fear to love was when I started crying instead of getting angry. That vulnerability, that tenderness, helped me be so much softer and gentler with myself, and in return, I could accept someone being soft and gentle with me. I could accept and then say of course! to someone loving me. And you know real love when it’s there, when you’ve really let yourself be open to it; it’s not exactly comfortable and it’s different than the sort that came before, the ones that you thought were grand but were really just time-passing parlor tricks. There are no excuses or bargains or conditions and you just let it rip, and it still scares the hell out of you because to be truly loved is the greatest risk of all.
But like an expanding circle – think the rings of a Sequoia – the experience of resting in light instead of dark is a procedural one, time over time. Light, brought to you most starkly by the dark, takes practice and getting used to, not just because human beings have evolved to scan the environment for clear and present danger but because danger is out there, and we know it, and we have to live and love fiercely anyway. Life opened wide is a great big gamble. But contracting and collapsing into all that may never actually happen – that’s a fold straight out of the gate. So I’ll play a hand. Might even go all in.