Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fear Itself

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." I don't know where that came from and I suppose I could look it up, but the provenance is irrelevant, really. When I was in that reading frenzy that all pregnant women enter to try to figure out exactly what was going to happen to me and how something the size of a small fire extinguisher was going to get from in there to out here, I would find reference to hormones that would make sure you never remembered the pain afterwards. Oh, yeah, that was comforting: It's gonna hurt like hell but you won't remember. It was a lie anyway: For a while, the memory was quite vivid and easy to call back up, so I am not so sure about the hormones that were supposed to take care of that. But now, 17 and 21 years later, I can say that I don't have a clue what the physical experience felt like. But I still retain vivid memories of the fear. The sense of not being in control and not knowing what was going to happen next were overwhelmingly terrifying for me. I wanted to DO something, wanted SOMEONE TO DO something to retain control of the situation. And when I think now of the things I most dread, it is the fear of the unknown, of what will happen and of not being able to control it.
The phone calls about the illnesses of parents, the waiting in the Emergency Room with a child, the news that a friend is going in for some sort of scan, what I remember most is the fear, the loss of control, the being a victim of whatever had happened and not having a way out or a choice.
My fear of water was like that. Since I cannot swim, I cannot afford for the boat to over turn, and with someone steering or paddling or another person or two even riding in the canoe, there is the risk that they will do something to overturn the boat. When I got my own one person boat, there was fear of waves, of wind pushing me, of current pulling me, and those fears of not being able to control the course of my boat brought me to the edge of panic. But learning to balance and paddle my boat, to steer it to where I wanted it to go, to paddle it back to a place I wanted to be, to stay on course in wind and waves, to learn to control my destiny in my boat on that water on that day keep the fear at bay.
And conquering one fear, standing up to the forces that caused that fear, gives you confidence about facing other fears. I will always fear giving a talk or teaching a class, but I will do fine. I will fear the reactions of people to whom I am presenting a project, but if they don't like things, I will fix them, or explain why they must remain that way and I will do fine. I will fear the airplane ride, but statistics tell me we will land safely, and I will be fine.
Back when I was delivering those babies, I should have focused less on trying to control the external factors, and more on controlling the fear within. The baby will come because the body knows how to make that happen. Let that process take its course, and manage the fear itself. In a canoe, see the waves, face them, and keep paddling, that part is simple, but the fear is a separate thing to be given focus and managed. Each time it is pushed back into its box, it comes out later and weaker and is more easily pushed down.
There is nothing to fear but fear itself, and when we tear fear down to physical symptoms, a lump in the back of the throat, a feeling of the insides rising, sweating, shaking, feeling lightheaded, none of that is terribly unpleasant in itself. If we stay in the moment during fear and stay still and swallow and breath and wait out the panic and calm the symptom for what it is, a physical process in our body and our brain, we can conquer the fear feelings, the fear itself. And what freedom that brings, what confidence that brings. But it is not something you do once. You learn to back down the fear and you do it again and again, every day. But knowing you have before and that you can and will makes it doable!

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