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What is fear?
I thought I knew fear.
I thought it was the feeling that creeps over you in the dark, as you lie with your eyes screwed shut because you’re suddenly horribly sure that a white shape will coalesce in the corner and drift towards you.
I thought it was that lurch as your stomach sinks swiftly into your boots when you realise that you forgot to do your homework, and a detention is heading your way.
I thought fear was the tension in the back of your neck, as you walk in the dark in a deserted car park.
Fear is the horror of imagined events, the anticipation of the things you most dread. It’s an inbuilt mechanism to protect us from ourselves; it stops (most of) us taking unreasonable risks; it prolongs our chances of survival in an unpredictable world.
Just as we start to realise that monsters aren’t real, that thunder doesn’t harm you, and dreams are just dreams… just as we start to break free of our fear… we have children of our own. And that’s when we REALLY find out what fear is.
I mentioned in a previous blog how I began to suffer from PTSD which manifested itself by flashing before my eyes graphic, horrendous images of catastrophes involving my children. I realised the true, crushing extent of the myriad awful possibilities out there in a way I never had before. I suddenly understood why some parents are unable to let go of their children, to give them the independence they need, to release them into the wild to fend for themselves.
And yet, now that my children are approaching adolescence, I can see that stifling them would also be a catastrophe – and a REAL one of my own making; not a megrim or a waking nightmare.
The worst thing about fear is its cunning ability to cause the worst to happen. It preys on your insecurities and changes your behaviour. For example, if you were terrified that your child could be run over whilst crossing the road on their journey to school, you might decide that you’d rather walk them to school yourself. You might believe that your presence there somehow mitigates any possible disaster. You might believe you are the talisman, the extraordinary parent, casting a force shield over your precious child, sending Fate scurrying back into the cracks between worlds.
Of course, you’ve fallen into the very trap that Fear set out for you at the beginning. You’ve protected your child to the extent that they DON’T KNOW HOW to cross the road safely themselves. And it’s this very lack of experience and knowledge that may, one day, cause them to suffer the disaster you’ve been trying so hard to avoid.
I once knew a girl who always looked sad. She was sad because her parents wouldn’t let her do ANYTHING. She wasn’t allowed out with friends – in fact, she hardly had any friends. Her parents had decided that friends were too unpredictable. She explained that her parents had eloped when they were 16, and had caused a huge rift in their respective families. They were so scared she would do the same that they wrapped her up in cotton wool, locked her in the house (literally), fed her hypochondria and neuroses, and made her very ill and unhappy.
The last thing I heard, before I fell out of touch with her, was that her situation had become so intolerable that, aged 17, she ran away with an older man, got married, and became estranged from her parents.
Too, too inevitable.
I remember being constantly assailed by fear when my boy started school. He’d always been a little awkward socially, and didn’t seem to encourage other people to interact with him. We knew he was warm, caring, sensitive, kind and funny, but we could see that he didn’t always come across that way. He didn’t connect with the life-saving, friendship-making, time-filling football culture like the other boys (and some girls), hence the trepidation every time I dropped him at school. I’d walk away wishing I could stay and help him with his new life.
Surprisingly perhaps, things went well. He enjoyed school. He made friends – friends who possibly had to make a little more effort than he made in return (!) but good friends, none-the-less. All my fears seemed to be totally unfounded, and I began to relax.
Then, about 3 months in, he came home under a burdensome raincloud, worry etched into his face, and pain in his eyes. Instantly, I felt my heart pounding and sweat breaking out at my hairline.
He wouldn’t tell me at first what was wrong. I had to physically restrain myself from badgering him about it. I told him that all problems became small problems when they were shared, and I’d be ready to listen whenever he was ready to talk.
Eventually he confessed (I’m even using the word ‘confessed’ as if he’d done something SHAMEFUL) that he had been verbally abused and pushed and laughed at by a boy in his class. The boy, notorious for his uncontrolled behaviour, his blistering vocabulary of swear words, and his violent family history, had been causing problems for other children too; but as my son told me about his day, his little face so despondent, I could feel heat rising in my face and ears.
Pure, primitive mother-rage.
I had never felt rage like it – not on my own account. That any child could be heartless and crass enough to hurt MY BOY – a boy who had never said or done a hurtful thing in his LIFE!! And what about the parents, huh?? Sitting on their asses, I bet, rather than teaching their child any values or compassion! Wasn’t this the rot that was attacking the very spine of society??
I knew, academically, that I was reacting, and that I couldn’t make any decisions about what to do until I had calmed down enough to respond instead. When I was no longer angry, I realised that focusing on the offending BOY was a waste of time. There was nothing at all I could do about him – he was not my responsibility. He was also only 5 years old – I couldn’t jump to conclusions about him and his family based on his behaviour. I felt loath to go into school to complain about the situation. It wasn’t bullying – yet. It wasn’t sustained and ongoing, and a reprimand from the teacher might exacerbate the boy’s frustration, and really focus his anger towards my son.
I did the only thing I felt would help.
I enrolled my son in a course of karate lessons.
I decided that taking part in a physical activity (which wasn’t outside, where he wouldn’t get dirty or wet, wearing a clean white uniform) would boost his confidence, and change the way he moved and presented himself. I hoped it might empower him to know he could look after himself. I thought he would probably appreciate the discipline and the pleasing sequence of moves, AND as a half-Japanese boy, he’d be able to master the technical terms quickly, and might even relate to the principles of karate.
I realised it was more of a long-term solution, but it made us both feel so much better, knowing that we were doing something practical to help deal with what life might throw at him.
It worked too. My son started to look more assured and confident. The other boy lost interest in tormenting him. Things went back to normal.
I suppose I’m trying to say that ‘fear’ is only conceptual. It is only a feeling based on a number of bad things that COULD happen. I find that the only way of dealing effectively with fear is to disarm it with pragmatic action. Do something to strengthen your position. Do something to make the fear smaller. Channel nervous energy and deflect the anxiety. This way, we broaden our horizons and create positivity where there was none. We don’t deny ourselves experiences or lock ourselves away, and we don’t allow fear to break faith with our beliefs or principles.
Next to tackle: my fear of flying…