There are times when fears bubble closer than usual to the surface, times when imperceptible increases in weariness or anxiety magnify the usual ghosts and vapors that stir the spirit. When I was young, I couldn’t tell the difference between being afraid and the things I feared. These days I have learned that the things I fear are almost never truly present; they are chimeras, fictions created by the past to ward off imagined hurts in the future. When I feel the shifting turbulence of fear inside me, roiling my stomach and quickening my pulse, I know that something in my outside world has gotten around my usual self-protections and stirred up old sludge.
It happens when I’m tired, especially that sigh-of-relief tired that follows a major effort. Today was my second 12-hour shift at the hospital in a row, following a week of business travel, high-intensity meetings and juggling a million details. I’ve been physically tired from running, and emotionally stretched from the challenges of a long-distance love affair, and a new roommate. Without quite enough sleep or quite enough time to relax, my ability to let go of imagined pain weakens, and my inner horizons start to darken with fear. It’s all going to collapse, they whisper. This life you’ve fought so hard to create is built on sand, they hiss and murmur, and those who say they love you are not to be trusted. Driving home after my shift, the warm evening sunlight flooding the car windows, I feel a familiar chill grip my gut. Pull back, says my heart, there is pain coming. The small hairs stand up on my arms, my knuckles whiten on the steering wheel.
A decade ago, I would have taken those inner voices as observations and acted upon them; history shows how many of my decisions I’ve made on the basis of fear rather than self-knowledge. Today I know to breathe deep and slow, to open my heart rather than slamming it shut, to imagine light and openness and healing rather than pain and darkness. Today I know that the best response to those inner whispers is not to armor myself against them but to let myself see what they’re trying to show me. Listening to my fears lets me know what questions to ask, what shadows are asking for the light. Paradoxically, the more honestly I allow myself to see what I fear, the easier it gets to recognize that it doesn’t exist.
It wouldn’t do to go through every day in the haze of hyper-attentive navel-gazing that fear-facing requires. I’m glad it only surfaces in full clarity on rare occasions. It is an immensely powerful experience, consigning old shadows to memory and feared pain to the realm of speculation, clearing the present for presence, attention and action. In the car on the way home from work, I was able to see that—once again—what I fear is a replay of the past, something that can no longer happen to me because I am no longer the woman I was. By the time I got home, the moment had passed and my fears with it. I am no longer the victim of old horrors, though I can fall prey to their seductive songs on occasion. It doesn’t last, though. I know how it feels to have my worst fears come true—and it’s survivable. Today’s fears are stirrings of a real vulnerability, but they are not the truth. I know better than to listen to them as prophets. Instead I let them teach me where my wounded places are, and where I must be gentle with myself. The future is entirely unknown to me, and the past is entirely gone. In the present, fears only feel real, they are unable to bear weight. I can see them for what they are, let the feelings surge and ebb away, and get on with it.
©Mary Braden 2015