Facing my Fear
I remember one reoccurring nightmare of a fifteen foot bear who could walk on stilts and climb into my upstairs bedroom window with ease looking for me. I always woke up just before.... I must have been about grade two....
It's probably not hard to guess where that terrifying image came from given that there was a fur bear rug complete with the head still attached in my grandmother's attic just a field away.
But the night I remember most was when I was alone -- really alone - not sure where everyone was - but I was all alone sleeping upstairs when I woke up in the middle of the night and saw the image of an intruder right outside my door next to the opening to the attic. How did he get there? I knew it was easy to scale the back porch pillars, climb onto the little roof to get into the next bedroom windows. I had done it many times.... Or had it/he come through the attic - was it other worldly. I was terrified... absolutely and completely!
I went under the blanket hoping he would leave - just leave!
I peaked. He hadn't left - and I went down again hiding again, and again -- until I became suspicious of how anyone could stand still for so long.
Very carefully, I slipped out of bed -- inched along the wall until I was really really close - and that's when I realized it was just a stupid shadow of a lamp shade.
I couldn't believe that I had allowed myself to be so frightened of nothing but a shadow for so long!!!! I didn't enjoy fear -- well, perhaps just a little bit. But I vowed right then and there that I wouldn't succumb to that kind of silly fear ever again.
It was as if I had read the quote because I believe exactly that.... "I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." Frank Herbert.
Right then and there, I decided in a very childish way to flex my courage muscle next time and take a good look at whatever I feared to see if it was real.. My motto was-- and yes I remember it even to this day, "The knights of old were very bold -- but we can be bolder yet - by faith." I soon realized, on closer examination, that my fears were nothing but paper tigers.
But even so my fears were huge so I decided I needed to get a practical handle on them.
My plan was that I would go to the scariest place I knew which was a little patch of woods three fields away in the middle of the night - when my beloved stars were near.... . This little forest was not only full of wild animals; it was also a "hang-out" for all the wayward fellows in the neighborhood - criminals - and it was said to be haunted. It held everything I feared. Exposure therapy! Who knew.
It was three fields away.
This meant I would have to wake up in the middle of the night when everyone else was sleeping, slip out of the back door and walk across the first field.
I waited. There was always some good excuse not to do this!
But one night the conditions were finally perfect. It was warm outside, the moon was shining and I felt wide awake enough ... and just a tiny bit courageous.
I slipped out the back door; I was in my baby dolls. They were mauve. The first field was rather short so it was fairly easy to walk to the other end of it and touch the barbed wire fence.
But then I did the worst thing - ever! I turned around to look back at the house. I heard something behind me. Suddenly it felt as if I had unleashed the entire underworld of demons behind me. Without another thought, I raced back to the house, slipped underneath the yard fence and scrambled up to the back door of our house.
It was only when I was safely in the house that I dared to look back through the screened door to see what had been chasing me. There was nothing, absolutely nothing. It was my own fear that had nipped at my heels.
I learned something very important that night. There is a fear beyond fear, a panic that conjures up more fears, a fear that can take over our imagination and produce an enemy greater than death.
I was now not only afraid, I was afraid of fear.
I think it was in the middle of the summer when I decided to try it again. This time I was more deliberate. I walked slowly through the first field, then into the next.
When I reached the end of the second field I paused for quite some time with my hand on the barb wired fence looking out at the forest, one more field away. The last field was the longest. I decided that I needed more time. I definitely would do it in stages.
I turned around. This time I wasn’t going to make the same mistake as I had the first time. I did not run. Even though I could feel the hairs on the nape of my neck tingle, I refused to run.
I could feel the chill of a summer night wrap itself around me. I shivered, but I knew it was only the cold that I was feeling. Every few steps I would pivot on my heels and make a 360 degree turn to see what was behind me. There was nothing. So very slowly, I made my way back having conquered some of my fear. Not all of it, but some of it. I felt very proud of myself as I slipped into the house, listened to everyone breathing.
The third field, the last challenge took me a little longer. It wasn’t until the end of the summer that I finally forced myself to think about it again. Knowing that when the weather changed - colder - the opportunity might also slip away.
It finally came, the perfect evening. I took a deep breath, reminded myself about that wonderful feeling of accomplishment at the end of the second challenge and set out through the first field, down the second, and then finally across the third. It was a long narrow field that took forever. Soon I realized that there is a place in the middle when home or home base is too far to even think of running back in time. There is a place where it isn’t safe at all. I was completely vulnerable.
I was walking slowly now having to turn around occasionally even as I walked out wondering how I was ever going to have the strength and fortitude to go back. But then again by this time I was too far to even think turning back was the safer option. If something emerged, I might have to run and hide in the woods rather than attempt fleeing back to home base.
There was almost a kind of new freedom when I had no place…. That was a new thought.
There was also a moment when I straightened my shoulders, thinking that the bravery I hoped for was now mine. I felt strong. It was starting to feed my soul.
Finally I touched the fence at the end of the third field. The forest met me right there touching the other side with tree branches. I had arrived at my destination!.
Now the question was what to do? I had never quite imagined what this moment would need. Should I slip under the fence and go inside those dark woods?
It was very quiet. I heard nothing, no music, no angel voices, nothing. Now the question was what do I do? I had never quite imagined what this moment would need.
Actually I couldn’t go inside the forest. I had forgotten in my haste to put shoes on so I stood there, barefoot. There was an unwritten rule in our community that you could go anywhere barefoot, except into the forest. I was almost glad for that rule. The decision was made. But how should I commemorate this moment. Now when I think of it, I should have brought rocks to build an altar or something but I had nothing
I decided that the moment required complete submission. I decided that I needed to conquer my fear at the moment by lying down.
I did. There beside the fence I lay down. It was the oddest thing – to lie down in the middle of my fear.
Then I discovered that when lying down, I felt much safer than standing. That was huge.
I just lay there till the cold got to me and I had to muster up another barrel of courage - another surge of courage just to stand up.
As I lay there the real disappointment was that God did not show up. God was silent. I thought he might be there for me beside the fence. But there was nothing but the reminders -- those beautiful stars so very far away. God is not manipulated I realized. He was there -- as always - but not in any vivid ways. Then I stood up! To turn my back on the forest was almost impossible to do - I just stared at it. This was my source of fear. If the forest creatures wanted to show themselves, now was the time. I was on their territory – far from my house. If they wanted me, they could have me now - or never!
I submitted to it all.
Nothing emerged of course. It was all strangely quiet.
So very slowly and very deliberately, I turned my back on the that dark forest and started to walk back towards those little village houses where everyone else was sleeping. They were all dark -- in the far distance. I was very much alone!
As before, I pivoted occasionally, but this time by the time I reached the second field, my fear had diminished remarkably.
By the time I reached the first field, which I had darted across the first time in a panic, seemed as safe as the yard. The yard was nothing but an extension of the house.
In all of this I felt an enormous pride that I had been able to conquer my fear. I had learned valuable lessons about walking in the dark -- and most of life is walking through the dark.
I wouldn't have been able to put it in words back then, but it was the beginning of the realilzation that we need to live in intentionality - face our fears. We need to fight our natural impulses and live counter-intuitively.
This time as I slipped back into bed, not even bothering to wash my dirty feet because I was so tired, one of my sisters heard me and asked me what I was doing. She had sensed that I had been gone too long - and "up to something."
I told her - or was it the next day. In any case - the family found out what I had been up to. My father, smiled at me - and just nodded. He seemed to understand how important this had been to me.
Strange as the exercise was - it became a building block for things to come.
“If you’re not living on the edge,you’re taking up too much space.” Flo Kennedy