“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may be.” –May Sarton
I have been thinking about fear. A lot. At our wonderful social-justice obsessed church, our pastor is doing a series on fear, and this coming Sunday I’m going to do the children’s time talk about “the fear of not having enough.” The result is that I’ve been reflecting on what my big fears were in the past, and what they are now.
When I was young I was afraid that my home would be destroyed by fire. I liked to take pictures and I began keeping my negatives in a metal box, so if the house burned down, I would be able to reprint the photographs.
When I was in my twenties and lived alone, I was afraid of unknown intruders. In each of my apartments, I made sure I had a telephone with a long cord so I could lock myself in the bathroom with the phone, should I hear the door of my apartment being broken down.
When my twins were small, I was afraid that we would be turned in to CPS and that a sheriff or another equally scary agent of force would be sent to take our daughters from us. I kept our preschool teachers’ phone numbers and an attorney’s phone number where I could grab them so I could convince this person or persons that they could not do this.
My fears weren’t absurd or even unreasonable. Houses do burn down, violent intruders do break down doors, and CPS does get called. It was my enormous, jumbo-sized fear of these things that was absurd. What good did the fear do me? Several years ago I was teaching in the college’s temporary classrooms in a building shared with DSHS, and one day as I was doing prep in the lobby, I overheard two social workers talking. My twins were in third or fourth grade by then, which would make our youngest, three or four years of age. I found myself recalling my old CPS fear — a nightmare I’d often awakened to in the middle of a night, a cold sweat of fear and more fear — and I laughed!
First of all, I laughed with relief because I no longer worried about it, but also I saw the absurdity of it. As parents we may have been messy and unorganized and harried, but we loved our little girls to pieces. And they were stuck like glue to us. (What also made me laugh was a little tiny vision of respite care and counseling: “C’mon, girls — go quietly with this nice man and I’ll see you in two weeks!”)
Of course something terrible could happen. Terrible things happen all the time. But lying awake at night and nursing a fear until it grows large doesn’t stop anything from happening. Do I still give in to fear? Of course I do. Worry about my girls — even though they are now 23, 23, and 17 — grows large when I give it a lot of rope. I worry about money.
In my writing life, too, I am guilty of nursing a host of absurd fears.
- What if I’ve worked all these years on a book that will never see the light of day?
- What if no one ever publishes this novel?
- What if I never get another book of poems published?
- What if my dream of being a “real” writer never comes to fruition?
- What if I’m a big old fraud and everyone is laughing at me?
- What if I only think I can write and I really suck?
When I was a teenager and I put my negatives in a metal box, I stopped losing sleep about everything being destroyed in a fire. I don’t think my fear dissipated because my photographs could be reprinted (what was the likelihood of them melting? would I even be alive to reprint anything? could replacing photographs replace the real life home a fire would destroy?) but because that small action brought to light — to awareness — the absurdity of wasting any more time being afraid.
I gave up my fear of spiders with the same panache when I was about 27. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop worrying about my daughters, but I think it’s time to give up my fears around writing. I can start by shining a light on the fear. And I can write anyway.
Last Sunday, our pastor shared this clip for Bridge of Spies. It’s too perfect not to pass along.