working with fear

IMG_3821, originally uploaded by mind on fire.

Much of my "work" over the past few years has been about facing fear, to consider how fear holds me back from taking risks or trying new things. When I start to do something scary and I feel that tightening in my chest I tend to ask myself "what's the worst thing that can happen here?" By facing that question head-on, I can typically proceed with said scary activity. Even though my tummy might continue to do somersaults, I can move forward anyways.

Right now some of my fears surround my own health and safety--or that of my loved ones. Living in SoCal with this swine flu frenzy so close by...but I know the likelihood of it harming anyone close to me is minimal. And we are healthy and precautious. I faced another fear head-on yesterday when we intentionally capsized our canoe so we could practice how to safely right it. It was cold (65--brrrr!) and I was super-scared. And because I'm the steersman, it was my job to tip the boat. Damn, that was hard. And I did without even knowing whether my 'beach leg' prosthesis would stay on and stay functional when I was fully submerged (even my prosthetist wasn't so sure that it was a good idea). But I did it anyways, and it went pretty smoothly, all told.

Another major fear that's looming in the distance is that this work I'm doing on my PhD will all be for naught when I attempt to find a job. The market for historians always sucks, and only sucks worse now because of the recession. I'm scared of being unemployable. But while that fear can motivate me to work harder and excel more now, I realize that worry about the future accomplishes nothing except for making me miserable now. There are far too many unknowns for me to concern myself with the 'what ifs' that are years away.

I wonder, sometimes, if religion helped to assuage my fears or if it exacerbated them? There were stretches of time when a lot of sucky things happened (worst-fears-coming-true types of things), when my religious conviction helped get me through them--as I saw each of these experiences as God's will and that He was tempering me to be a stronger person. But I also lived with a constant feeling of surveillance and worry that I was meeting God's expectations. My mind was constantly preoccupied with keeping the commandments because I didn't want to incur God's wrath or compromise my ability for exaltation in the hereafter. And in all, I think I am far less fearful now than before. Perhaps because I don't feel the need to constantly prove my devotion to a rather distant and arbitrary deity whose 'punishments' seemed so very harsh (like striking me down with cancer because I was 'on the wrong path' as a teen...sigh). But there are other fears that loom for me now, most of them coming from the fragility of my life and the randomness of the universe. Because I can't hold my children close enough to protect them from harm, in all its guises (note: though I did add HUGE bars of industrial-strength reflective striping to my kids bags when they began walking to school, so I'm all for the ounce of prevention approach!). Because the financial stability of our lives is only illusory. Because I can't guarantee that those I love will always return that emotion with similar fervor. Because each time I take a step I can't guarantee that I have a leg to support me,. Etc, etc.

And I also know that no matter how many hours and days and even years I spend worrying about these things...won't make a whit of difference in their outcome. But the worry and fear will rob me of the ability to enjoy this moment. This one. Right now.

Pic above (by John) is of Elly and Bobette--a rare image of the two of them hanging out together. Typically they like to keep their distance, given that they are the two dominant female felines 'round here. But on occasion we see them interact in a friendly way, or at least ignore each other for long enough to just hang out in proximity. A friend mentioned that they look like yin and yang here. I have to agree!


Elissa Minor Rust said...

I can relate so much to this. When I was still in Mormonism, I could fall back on the old notion that the holy ghost was always guiding me--don't turn right there! I felt the holy ghost telling me that! In reality, it was my pathological anxiety. The question I have learned to ask myself (thanks to an amazing therapist) when that fear seizes my chest, is, "How is my fear/anxiety keeping me safe?" If it isn't keeping me safe, it's a pointless emotion that I need to fight.

Re: the job thing. There are a lot of issues there where being part of the LDS Church lessened some anxiety in that realm. You know it: as long as you pay your tithing, God will always provide for you! My husband's family was really into this notion--every little thing that comes along or happens to help financially is always directly related to paying tithing. Of course, now that we aren't practicing and are 10% more wealthy every month, we can pay the bills! But there was a strange comfort in that notion that as long as you gave the church it's share and obeyed, you would always be provided for.

Great post, Jana. I can't wait until my ridiculous 5 class teaching load goes away so I can go back to solo blogging. You inspire me. :)

Aerin said...

I agree - fear can overtake the moment so easily. I think when I realized how much time I was spending on what "could" happen instead of enjoying what was happening now...

I try to remind myself not to buy trouble. Or, at least, to acknowledge what I can control and let the rest go. It's not easy, most days.

melanie said...

One of the magical things that's happened to me since leaving the church has been an increased sense of control. Before, I put everything in God's hands and waited around to see what would happen. Now that I put things in my hands, I get a lot more done knowing that I can make things happen. Not that I don't still feel terrified (especially as I'm on the verge of starting a history phd- which feels crazy), but I feel a lot more confident in my ability to weather the storms. I do what I can do and things work out. Tipping the boat is a powerful analogy-- I think those moments of boldness and risk inspire meaningful growth.

I appreciate your blog- it is a rare tranquil corner of the internet. Thanks for your insights.

G said...

I get this fear thing. Mine are different, but just as capable of halting all my forward motion.

"...enjoy this moment. This one. Right now." that's a good reminder. thanks for that. and good luck with that too.