As parents, we are often called upon to allay our children’s fears. Spiders, the dark and blood are common fears among the kid-set. But what about when their fears overlay our own? What about when the things they fear bring about thoughts about what we fear in ourselves and our own lives? When your 8 year old says, “I’m afraid that you might die in a car accident,” is there a little voice in your own head that says, oh my sweet girl, that scares the shit out of me, too.
The things I am scared of now are not the same things I was scared of in my twenties. Then, it was more about worry over getting my heart broken, obtaining a speeding ticket, sleeping through my alarm or getting caught with an open bottle of beer in my car. Now, my fears directly relate to my people. I’m sure yours do, too. Am I doing damage by the way I parent them? Subtext: will they get pregnant at 18 and drop out of college? Am I giving my husband the attention he deserves? Subtext: will he finally get tired of the fact that I put my pajamas on at 7:30 and go have an affair? At this point, all my fears come down to one basic fear: There are people in this world for whom I am responsible. They count on me. I can’t screw this up. It is no longer just about me.
This week has piled fear on top of fear in our country: bombs, jihad, chemical explosions and all manner of anarchy. The footage of those young guys calmly preparing to kill people is disconcerting to say the least. The London marathon, held this past weekend, reportedly had significantly fewer and more jittery spectators in attendance. My daughter, despite her fears, rides in the car with me on a nearly daily basis. So it got me thinking. How do we do it? How do we get past our fears? Of course, there is a fear and subsequent emotional response when we encounter situations which make us afraid. Your lovely amygdala, almond sized in the temporal portion of your brain, mediates the fear response. When you get sweaty palmed, tight lipped and tummy-sick from fear, you have your amygdala to blame. So what keeps this little guy from going into overload? Another structure called the rostrate cingulate tells your amygdala to chill out. In my daughter’s case, having been in the car many times, the rostrate cingulate quells the fears by relying on prior evidence that this car thing is actually pretty safe.
And also, there is Brene Brown‘s work which tells us that “faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.” According to her research on courage and vulnerability, anything worthwhile we get in life is basically because we put ourselves out there. And being fearful is in direct conflict with being joyful in the world.
Ok, so I get it. Fear is part of life. We rely physiologically on fear to prepare us in case we need to get the hell out of a situation. We need to walk through fear to feel relief and relinquish the idea that we actually have some modicum of control in our lives. I think about people like Woody Allen or author Jonathan Goldstein, who have made careers out of their fretful, some would say neurotic manner. Both are highly successful, but retain a certain level of skepticism and arms-distance from the scarier aspects of life. Then I think about adventure junkies like that rock climber who doesn’t use ropes. Or people who hike by themselves for vast distances without knowing where they are going. We are all part of the same human continuum. After the Boston marathon, we can choose to never do a sponsored race again. We can live in blame. Or we can sign up. And show up. And see what happens.
In suburbia, I have heard people wondering if this is the “new normal.” Worrying about the future of our children. Of our country. I get it. I worry, too. While following the news coverage of the hunt for the suspects, I heard the story of a community in the heart of the lock down. The families gathered in a neighbor’s house, made pancakes, the kids played in the playroom and the adults made inappropriate jokes and speculated on the reasons the suspects did what they did. What an awesome gathering! What a remarkable way to heal. Together. Because really, aren’t we all just a little fucking over being afraid?
So, yes, my 8 year old is afraid. She frets. She worries. But I admire her deeply. She tells me what scares her. She trusts me listen, help and most importantly, not judge. With such unabashed honesty, her giant pooling eyes well with tears. But she is so smart. She knows she doesn’t have to go it alone, that sharing gives purpose and meaning to things which make no sense. In her fear, she does not blame and she does not get angry. And after we talk and snuggle, she’s better and runs off to play.
We could learn a thing or two from her.
Thanks to Barbara Paulsen from Mt. Hood MaMa Iphoneography for her beautiful photos. Don’t be afraid to check out some of them.