Monday, March 1, 2010

Fear and (Self-) Loathing

I've got to hand it to Aidan, she got me thinking. A lot. About fears and the things worse than fears. Like being afraid. I think being afraid is a lot worse than individual fears. Being afraid implies something I can't quite define, but I know I don't like. Being afraid seems an indicator of future behavior. I don't like those kinds of limitations.

But let me step back for a moment. I think I used to be a lot more afraid. I also feel pretty certain that I didn't seem like an afraid person, mostly because I knew even as a child that I didn't want to be perceived as afraid. So I expended a lot of energy to seem unafraid. Also there was pride. There has always been pride. Possibly sociopathic pride.

I am reminded of two incidents, and sorry to those of you who have heard either one. When I was 16, I went with zionist summer camp to Israel for six weeks (let it be known that Israel, unlike, say, France or Australia, is a two-weeks top trip - there just ain't that much of interest), several days of which were spent roughing it (I must stop to mention that when you are on a trip with the 16-year olds of the nation's Temple Beth Shaloms, roughing it is a kind of laughable description of what you do - kind of like when you go on safari on CBS's dime: you're certainly outdoors a lot, but it isn't a rough kind of outdoors; which is not to say it isn't fun) in the desert. By this I mean we walked around during the day and then slept outside at night. For all I know, our guides could have had us walking in circles. Our particular guide was straight out of central casting for "former-IDF-tough-as-nails-misogynist-with-survivalist-instincts" also "speaks in halting English." I disliked him immediately as caricatures rarely capture my interest. So we're walking around with Zvi, or Yoni, or whoever, and he's trying to harden us up, talking about survival and the desert and oh god who knows, when he picks up a live snail, peels its shell off, and pops it in his mouth. He turns to the charming male youth from the Cherry Hill JCC and utters the cinematographic line, "which of you is man to eat snail?" It turned out the answer was no one. He asked again, "which of you is man to eat snail?" To the boys. From Cherry Hill. With the retainers. My 16-year old misguided feminism stepped in at that point. "Me. I am man to eat snail." And eat it I did. Or swallow is more like it. Because pride was way more important at that moment than the fear of eating a live snail.

Fast-forward five or so years. Devoted partner and I are driving to Maine by way of Vermont and New Hampshire for a little summer getaway. We have a full-sized canoe tied to the roof of the hand-me-down 1988 Mercedes (this should have been a warning sign of trips to come, now that I think of it - we're still this kind of crazy). Devoted partner stops at a swimming hole he remembers from summers' past, the kind with a rope swing so you can fling yourself into the water. I was petrified of this. I don't have a fear of heights; it's the fear of not clearing the jagged and/or shallow parts of things that stops me in my tracks. I climbed the tree to get to the rope and froze. And climbed down. Sheepishly. I did not take the leap off the rope swing.

And I have regretted that nearly every day since.

How could I have been defeated by a stupid rope swing? How could I have thought that though every other jumper made it safely to the water, I would be the one to misjudge the exit and bash my head open on something? But I did. And it pissed me off to no end. When I think about it now I'm super pissed off.

So something changed. I'm not going to say it changed immediately after the rope swing failure, though the next day I did take a twenty or so foot jump off a cliff into Emerald Pool, scared as shit the entire time. I was more afraid of being the kind of person who was afraid of things than I was of the things I was afraid of. Scuba diving, in principle, scared the crap out of me, but I jumped into that water those first few times with my teeth gritted and my brow furrowed in defiance. Just try to scare me, scary things. It's not gonna happen. When the French made me eat snails, and the Portuguese clams, I might have complained a bit, but I ate them. Because I was too proud to do otherwise.

And I discovered that the person I thought I was didn't fully exist. She was an invention cobbled together from fear and preconception. And she wasn't as much fun as the person I actually am. I don't know how much it matters that the change was borne of not wanting to be seen a certain way, and who's to say that the current incarnation of me isn't just as fabricated as the old one, I only know that being not afraid of sweetbreads and sharks has made me less afraid of other things. I don't have to grit my teeth and will myself to courage as much. And I like that immensely.

I'll be the first to admit that the mantra of, "what's the worst that can happen?" does have massive backfire potential, but you generally know the instances in which the backfire is likely. So you eat something that you don't like - the worst that can happen is that it comes back up. A very temporary inconvenience. For me, living in fear of unknowns and prejudged knowns was a far harder pill to swallow.

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