Oct 31 2011
“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”
Yann Martel, Life of Pi
I read this quote this morning and thought, “Yes!” How true it is. We tend to think that fear is something that only arises in moments when bad things are about to happen. But, don’t the origins of fear predate the current set of circumstances? Don’t we have to learn to be afraid, and to avoid fearful situations? Once when my nephew was very young (less than 2 years old), we took him to Sanibel Island to play in the ocean. We were walking slowly along the beach, when he suddenly reached down and picked up a dead crab as if he’d found a prize winning sea shell. He couldn’t have cared less that a) it was dead and b) had it been alive it could have pinched him. I reached out to stop him, but it was too late. He was turning it over in his little hands, letting the legs hang limply and unmoving during his curious examination. He was calm and intrigued; I was a nervous wreck. He had no fear of the dead creature, but I did. My thirty years of life experience had taught me that claws pinched and dead things were germy. They were not to be touched. Despite my better judgment and “wisdom,” I allowed my nephew to continue in his silent reverie over his new discovery. I even took his picture. I was extremely proud of myself for not reacting as my mother would have. Undoubtedly, she’d have knocked the poor dead creature out of my grip and drug me kicking and screaming back to the condo to wash my hands.
That same day, as my nephew was playing in the ripples of ocean at the water’s edge, he started to lose his balance and topple over-just as a wave was coming. I reached out to grab him, but I missed his arm. Luckily, I caught hold of the hem of his little shirt. The result was that he was stopped just short of going face down in the water as the wave hit. He was almost comically suspended an inch or two above the swirl of water (like that famous scene in Mission Impossible, where Tom Cruise is suspended by a wire from the ceiling), and then it gently receded. Again, he was amused and reached his hands down to pat the surface of the rushing wave. Again, I was afraid, only this time I was absolutely wordless with fear. What if I hadn’t caught him? What if my back had been turned for that moment? What if? I looked down at my nephew, splashing and laughing; totally carefree and oblivious. When I told my sister about it later, she laughed too. She said, “It’s a good thing you caught him, he’s still got tubes in his ears and he can’t get his head wet,” over her shoulder as she casually walked into the kitchen to check on lunch. Somehow, she wasn’t afraid.