Wednesday, November 3

Fighting fear

Fear. It's an interesting and tricky phenomenon. I did a lot of thinking about fear during college, maybe in response to terrorism and politics, or overseas adventures, or books defending the goodness of humanity and strangers... probably in response to all these things. And I became passionate about the importance of fighting fear. Don't let fear control you, don't let fear keep you from trying difficult things, that sort of thing.

Fighting fear felt poetic for awhile. I jumped out of a plane and helped a diabetic drug addict in a rough Atlanta neighborhood. I drove six hundred miles by myself five months after I got my driver's license. I went to South America. But then, and this happened in a matter of months, I began to fear less tangible things, like myself and failure and the future. That kind of fear has proven much harder to fight.

Anyway, I don't know if fearing myself activated my previously dormant fear center or what, but recently I have experienced more ear ringing palm sweating fear than ever before. Some of you have heard about our camping trip in Yellowstone. Hannah heard a bear (or something) circling our tent and woke me with a terrified barely audible whisper: "Stop breathing. There's a bear." I think the experience will make a good short story some day. For now, suffice it to say that night was the first time I felt I'd come to terms with death. Paralyzed in my sleeping bag, unable to control my alarmingly rapid pulse, I thought calmly to myself, "You might die very soon. But that's okay." For weeks, even in north Alabama where there are no bears, my stomach lurched every time I heard a rustle in the woods.

For the first time in my life I was scared of an upcoming trip as I read warning after warning of armed robbery, rape, and bus hijackings in Guatemala. I was on high alert in the poorly lit parking garage of Guatemala City's international airport, and my heart pounded hard when it occurred to me our driver could be kidnapping us. Here in Nueva Alianza, I've woken up to mysterious noises around the hotel. Sometimes I hear distant voices and remember our lockless door and think about machetes. And don't get me started on all of the insects and critters in this place. Bright green buzzing flies dive bomb me when I brush my teeth. Cockroaches live in the fork and spoon drawers. Mice race across the attic floor at night and scurry through the kitchen during lunch. Once I was lying on the floor fixing my bunk bed when an enormous black scorpian crawled right under my nose.

Luckily I've developed a coping mechanism for creepy crawly things: I've taught myself not to look for them. When I shower or open drawers, I actively choose not to focus my eyes on any walls or corners. I calmly go about my business, and if I notice an animate dark mass that may or may not be a tarantula, I ignore it. "It's probably not a tarantula," I say to myself. Ignorance is bliss. I don't want to know. The other night, Hannah and Dan insisted on talking about an awful spider that was crawling across the living room ceiling. I refused to look and managed to forget about it. Later, as I was stretching, my eyes accidentally found the spider on a beam above my feet. Shudder. It took five minutes of disciplined thinking, but I managed to forget it again. The same night we heard creaking floor boards outside and a few startling BANGs, either recreational gun shots or oranges falling on the tin roof. Though I knew we were probably hearing dogs and fruit, I still felt uneasy. But I didn't dwell on the noises and focused on our James Bond movie instead.

On multiple occasions people have asked, "aren't you scared of anything?" Yes, I am. Ask my dad about the time I almost screamed and clawed my way out of a Disney World water ride. Sharks, tsunamis, spiders, and the idea of armed assault freak me out. I don't do horror movies. During this past year alone, I've discovered all sorts of new scary things. But I've also discovered that even my worst fears can be fought. It's always been worth it.

To be honest, if I didn't insist on fighting fear I would be back in the States by now. Good grief. Hannah just reported she was washing her face, looked down and saw a rat chasing a grasshopper under the bathroom door.

On a separate note, my friend Dan just got back to Alabama after two weeks in Guatemala. He visited the capital, Antigua, and then spent a few days here in the community. You can read about and watch his adventures here.


Ned said...

"Anyway, I don't know if fearing myself activated my previously dormant fear center or what, but recently I have experienced more ear ringing palm sweating fear than ever before."

You've finally crossed the threshold into adulthood Mary Beth! Welcome, we've been waiting for you! Soon you'll be sitting with Mother in the hall closet during a thunderstorm (2 counties away) and your journey will be complete.

As for the critters, both great and small, it sounds like you need to find a good 2x4 to keep at your side. Hint: if the target is a mammal or reptile, swing with both hands.

Mary Elizabeth said...

you have no idea how much, particularly in this moment, i appreciate this comment! three cheers for 2X4s and adulthood.

Anonymous said...

Ned's comment made me laugh very loudly sitting here by myself. Thankfully the dog is deaf LOL

As someone not real fearful myself I have to say I am not sure if I could talk myself down from the 'piders and the possibilities of some of the other things you have there. :-) I might just possibly be back in Alabama by now....the land of "milk in the fridge and carpet on the floor".