I just read a great article by teacher/author Tony Bertauski describing how he takes students to get up close and personal with bugs, as in hissing cockroaches. He vividly depicts the dance of fear, from the cute little girls who bravely step forward, hands outstretched, to the adults who try to hide behind the kids. The tentative touch, the sticky prickly of insect feet on skin, the realization that there is nothing to be afraid of from these big, alien insects….the wonder of the creatures in their hands.
I get fear. As a kid I was plagued with many monsters – the nightmares of a giant trying to step on me, a very real snarling neighborhood dog that cornered me, the local bullies who tried to make a meal of my brother and sometimes me too.
The weird thing about these fears is that no one else much noticed. It was part of life. Imaginary danger wove through the same strands as real danger and my DNA’s predilection for terror stayed on hyperdrive. As a child I was relieved to wake up every morning, found a dog-free route home from school, and reluctantly learned to throw a punch. I was still scared…but I made it.
I suppose that is why the world is populated by people who get scared easily – they’re the descendants of the folks who were judiciously terrified. The others surely became dinner for some prehistoric (or maybe historic) predators. Fear is a handy strategy to keep you walking and breathing.
But it’s not a lot of fun.
I spend as many hours as possible in my garden. I watch squirrels run for their lives from dogs, worms curl and thrash to avoid the monster (me), songbirds flurry from hawks. I’ve understood for years – fear is a bottom-line condition of existence.
But, wait a minute…I see these same songbirds launch aerial attacks on the hawks, worms determinedly wiggle back into the soil, and squirrels up in the trees scold their persecutors (jays throw nuts at them too). Even among these nearly helpless beings, terror isn’t the last word.
So being human, how do I handle my terrors? Even as a kid, my brain stepped in. I couldn’t do much about the nightmare giant squashing me (although in later years he got an upgrade to a tornado…). When my oldest daughter was attacked by a neighborhood dog, I wasn’t about to let her face what I did, so we got a puppy. A big puppy. She sat with her feet up on a chair for a month, but now her rescue mutt is the joy of her life.
The bullies were a bigger problem. I learned to accept the exhaustion of fear, to recognize that they could hurt my body but if I didn’t look scared, my soul stayed intact. I’m not above revenge – I write about bullies a lot. The bad ones get to appear over and over again as the fictional villains getting their comeuppance. The brain wins even on a karmic level.
Being human (or at least on a slightly higher order than earthworms) means survival isn’t the only target in existence. Living well, living with an open heart, living bravely is to my mind a much better goal. Not easy, but better.
It’s tough going to battle with DNA. But it’s not such a bad thing to channel those cute little girls who held out their hands to become acquainted with the monsters. That’s how they discovered the bugs weren’t monsters after all. That’s how they took steps to master their world. That’s how they learned to be brave.
That’s how we all discover how to be the heroes of our own lives.
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