Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Fear Itself

I am having difficulty getting started on this post.  I think it might be the scary topic I've chosen.  And the scary picture.  But if I've learned anything about (you know, the f-word) in my many years of living in its kingdom, it's that avoidance feeds the little monster.  Since I have no wish to nurture this tyrant and thus contribute to its vitality, I stumble forward.

I gather, from much too much reading on the subject, and eons of observing my own and others' reactions to change, uncertainty, peril and impending disaster of all sorts, that some of us do fear more than others.  The pesky anatomical structure responsible for our low tolerance to this everyday human emotion is the amygdala.  A night-shift medical resident visiting my physician father, who was high on morphine and freaking out in the aftermath of spinal surgery, referred to this structure as "Amy Gdala."  She (the resident, not Amy) appeared reasonably bright and well-educated, and I assumed that her mispronunciation was intentional, an effort to calm my father by domesticating this overperforming part of his tortured brain.

Neuroscientists studying this troublemaker have focused on issues of size and symmetry, cataloguing variations between those of us who are fear-prone and the rest of the population, and documenting changes with therapy and medication.  The jury is still out on what we know about its functioning, and what we can do about it.  For myself, suffice it to say that Amy has not been my friend.

I am mostly an undercover anxious person.  My suffering is generally confined to the internal realm, not noticeable to the naked eye--unless you happen to catch me backing up off an expressway on-ramp.  But those who know me well are aware of the fences that anxiety has built around my life.  On many occasions, I have managed to breach these perimeters, and experience new freedoms.  For example, I now fly where I need to go, and enjoy it.  But my "first responder" in times of stress is often minor terror.  To mix in another metaphor, fear is like the mustard garlic of my heart--plucked out with effort, returning in its season, never fully eradicated.

Somewhere I read recently that the fear which accompanies change is actually functional, if we can accept its gifts.  It helps us to focus on the new circumstances, to take in relevant information, and to learn new skills and behaviors.  The Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron advises that we can see anxiety as "great energy" for change.  I'm trying these ideas on.  I'd rather not have to.

In any case, I acknowledge the ways in which fear has contributed to my stalled-out periods.  Fear of failure.  Fear of success.  Fear of flying.  Fear of highway driving.  Fear of moving.  Fear of making mistakes.  Fear of doing nothing.  And Franklin Roosevelt's bugaboo, and my biggest enemy, fear of FEAR.  In this current remaking of my life, I am learning to live with it.  But like the little girl in the story I was reading with my grandchild yesterday, I know that "A monster is not a good pet."

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