Living Through Fear
Halloween was not a holiday I ever really celebrated growing up. Most of the places I lived had never heard of it. (Or if they had, they thought it might have something to do with football or roasted turkeys. Maybe Santa Claus was involved somehow?) I do not like scary or gross or spooky or creepy things. Despite my great love of cinema, I cannot watch horror films without squealing and looking away. I have been in one haunted house in my life – the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland – and even that made me jumpy. So I never really had the desire to seek Halloween out. Recently though, I have been thinking about how interesting it is that we have a holiday devoted to fear and celebrate by choosing to be afraid through scary costumes and decorations, horror films, and haunted houses, hayrides, ski lifts (the only fun scary thing I have ever enjoyed!) etc. We are seeking out fear for fun.
I have a long history with fear. From a very young age, fear made a lot of decisions for me. I have a gift for solving problems and I have a vivid and wild imagination. Before I even knew everything there is to fear in the world, I could imagine bad outcomes to any given scenario. It became my goal to avoid as many of these worst case scenarios as possible. This made me a very responsible but also a very cautious young person. When my siblings found an unknown dog to pet, I would wring my hands and worry that the dog would have rabies. When my friends found a great cliff spot to jump into the river, I would be imagining the huge rocks just under the surface that someone would break a leg on. When I walked the one block from my house to school in broad daylight, I would be prepared for each person I passed to kidnap me.
Fear can be helpful. It is an important human emotion. Fear itself does not keep you safe from what you are afraid of. But taking action in response to fear can sometimes prevent bad things from happening. Deciding not to pet the stray can prevent rabies. Checking the river for rocks before launching off the cliff can prevent broken bodies. Asking a friend to walk with you to your car at night can prevent unwanted attention. Ignoring fear is dangerous but not every bad thing can be prevented. Some fears become realized no matter how hard you try to prevent them.
None of those childhood imagined scenarios touched my deepest fears anyway. The fears that were so deep down inside of me, I barely knew they were there until something would poke them and my heart would shudder. Those deep down fears were things like: not measuring up, not being good enough or performing well enough, being unloved and disliked, failing, and being abandoned by people I trusted. I had very little experience with those things actually happening but it did not keep me from being deeply afraid of them coming to pass someday. I lived my life trying to prevent those things from coming to pass. I made sure I did the best I could at everything I attempted. I tried to be likable and lovable. I apologized immediately and profusely if I found out I had hurt anyone’s feelings. And though no one ever told me to, I knew I had to keep these deep down fears a secret. That I would be dangerously vulnerable if anyone every found out what I feared most.
I did pretty well for 28 years. I was loved. I did not have any enemies (that I knew of). I was pretty well-liked and I was good at most things I did. I kept my worst fears mostly hidden and at bay. But then everything changed and in an instant all of those deep down fears came tumbling out into real-life in the most horrific way. I was abandoned and declared unlovable and unlikable. I was told I was doing a terrible job at the very thing I was trying the hardest at and that there are no second chances or ways to make up for my failures. I was living my worst nightmare come true and I spent a year waking up every morning not believing it could all be real life. But it was, and I lived through it. I am living and breathing through it.
There is something deeply freeing about living through what you fear the most and finding that you are still somehow alive and breathing on the other side. My worst fears coming to pass did not destroy me the way I was sure they would. Realizing that emboldens me in a way little else can. When I lost what I thought I could not live without, I had little else left to lose. I can let my guard down and take personal and professional risks I was too afraid of before. I can let others know me in a way I was too timid of before because all of my deepest fears are already out in plain view. I have little else to hide. The place where fear used to live in my heart has been hollowed out and now I have a choice about what to fill that space back in with. I am left hurting and injured but I am left with the capacity to hope and heal – which have proven much stronger than fear.
The more I think about the ways we choose to enjoy fear through Halloween, the more I think it is less about the fear itself than it is about surviving those fears. When we watch a horror film or walk through a haunted house, we can experience our worst fears in a controlled setting and then they are over and we have “lived” through them. Just as we can simulate fear, we can simulate the relief and freedom on the other side of living through fear. That relief and freedom are powerful emotions. And though I still do not understand why we choose to seek out fear, I know why we choose to seek out the hope that lives on the other side of fear.