Fear: a Meditation

I wrote this essay for fun last semester and was revisiting it today. I had thought about doing something with it, but that never happened. However, I am rather fond of it and thought I’d share. Enjoy.

“I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable and beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.”

Mary Oliver wrote these words, and I have them printed out and pinned to the corkboard covered in floral fabric that hangs above my bed. Mary Oliver writes beautiful poems about wild geese and wonder, about seeing beyond oneself. But of all her words, I think these are my favorite.

I once wrote in a notebook that what I wanted most to be was brave and kind. I think kindness takes a sort of bravery I do not always possess. It is much easier to bury myself in my own mind.

When I was a little girl, I was afraid of everything, but mostly people. I cried on the first day of school in preschool, kindergarten, first, second, and perhaps even third grade. I am not sure what it was that so frightened me about school. Learning has always come easily. I read short chapter books by the end of kindergarten. But leaving my home, being surrounded with other people for six or seven hours of the day—that made my stomach tie in knots.

In first grade, my mother used to pick me up after school on Fridays when she was nearby in town already for a Bible study, and I had an irrational fear that she would forget me. At least once, I remember crying before school even got out, because I was so positive she would not be waiting for me in the parking lot. The days she was a few minutes late only confirmed the nightmare. Eventually, I went back to taking the twenty-minute bus ride even though the car ride home with my mother was only five minutes, because waiting made me too anxious.

Looking back now, it doesn’t make sense. Mothers don’t forget about their children. I could have called her on the school phone. My teachers wouldn’t have let me be left alone at school. But logic drowned in my five or six-year-old brain beneath a tidal wave of panic.

 

My friends tell me now that I am brave. Last October, I jumped out of an airplane. I did not scream as my skydive instructor pushed the both of us out the door. We somersaulted once, then plummeted. In the rushing air, my goggles made dents around my eyes. I watched the quilt-like squares of Iowa fields come closer. The parachute snapped open. I never doubted that it would.

 

Once I asked a boy to coffee, and when I arrived, my hands started shaking so much I could barely hold my phone up to the scanner to buy my drink. My pulse beat from my heart to my stomach and toes with enough horsepower to propel a small boat. There was nothing particularly frightening about the boy, except that he had come to see me. I would have to talk to him.

I am not skilled at conversation, especially with people I don’t know well. Everything I want to say gets lost somewhere between my brain and my mouth. Words sputter out in mere graphite scribbles of the cleanly typed book in my head. Either that or my mind goes blank entirely, every word flying to a far-off land. Left to myself, words return like birds in flight, migrating home after winter.

 

I was raised attending Sunday school, and I always felt an affinity with Moses when he tells the Lord God YHWH that he can’t talk to Pharaoh because he is slow of speech and tongue. I have heard it said that perhaps Moses had a speech impediment, but I always imagined him just like me, words fleeing from the anxious war-drum of his heartbeat.

YHWH is not impressed with this excuse. “Who made man’s mouth?” asks the Lord. “Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?”

Moses has seen a bush burning but not consumed, has heard the voice of the Creator and taken his shoes off in respect of holy ground, yet he does not believe this God can help him speak.

YHWH meets Moses in his trembling and sends his brother Aaron to speak as his mouthpiece. Together they go to Egypt, where Moses turns the Nile into blood and parts a sea by stretching out his hand.

 

I have sometimes thought about getting diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. But the thought of scheduling an appointment and talking to someone about my social anxiety sounds both uncomfortable and inconvenient.

Of course, social anxiety itself is uncomfortable and inconvenient. I hate class discussions and giving speeches. I don’t know what to say in small talk, and occasionally I get nervous even while talking with friends.

When I make phone calls, I have to decide in my head what to say beforehand. Sometimes I type it out on my computer. Occasionally I type up multiple versions of a conversation so I’ll be prepared no matter how things go.

On the days I feel most anxious, I take tests on the internet to tell me whether I have an anxiety disorder or not. My results are typically borderline. I have a moderate amount of social anxiety:
This test is not a professional diagnosis. Please note other factors may be at work. For a professional diagnosis, see a psychologist or licensed therapist.

I have no plans to see a psychologist or licensed therapist.

 

I am a journalist, or at least a journalism student, and you might think that this fear of phone calls and conversations would be detrimental to my success. You might be right. I have spent a winter morning panicked in my pajamas, cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom trying to work up the nerve to call a senator. I called my mother first. I asked her to tell me it would be all right.

When I remember that morning, though, what I remember most is that I called. I called multiple senators about multiple issues that semester. First I called about broadband internet access, then I called about human trafficking. I called, and when they didn’t call back, I called again. I left messages. I looked up their home phones.

Journalism is a strange business. I think I am not what one expects in a reporter, but my stories have been published in newspapers. My teachers always praise my work. I have come to believe I am good at journalism, not because I am good at asking questions, but because I am good at listening. Sources find me unthreatening. Then they tell me their life stories.

I once cried on the phone as the mother who adopted a survivor of sex trafficking told me how the desk workers at hotels never questioned her daughter’s pimp when he bought up separate rooms for each underage girl he had with him. Perhaps I am a good journalist because I have an easily bleeding heart.

 

The best writing teacher I ever had told our class over and over that people just want to be seen, and as writers telling their stories, our job was to see them. This made sense to me, because it has felt to me often that I live my life mostly in my head, in a place with tall walls, and the mind can be a terribly lonely place.

When I started to believe in God again as more than a vague sense of guilt and fear but as something pulsing and living, someone reaching for my trembling hands, it was because of people who saw me. I felt YHWH in the friends who would sit for hours in cars asking questions, or in cafeteria lunch booths asking nothing at all, simply existing beside me.

I used to worry about impressing my friends and losing them if I didn’t have enough to say, if I failed to be interesting, if my words had all gone south. Sometimes I still worry.

But I don’t want to impress anyone very much anymore. I want to see and be seen, so more often I focus simply on showing up, on listening, and somehow I have found friends that stick—who don’t mind when my tongue is stuck in my throat, who are comfortable sitting in silence. This, I think, is grace.

 

I am not afraid of heights or walking alone in the dark. I am not afraid of flying in airplanes, and I am only mildly afraid of spiders.

I am afraid of never saying the right thing at the right time. I am afraid of being tongue-tied with a speedboat heart.

But I am trying to still my shaking hands and hold onto my heart. I am trying to be improbable and beautiful and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings.

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