When I was a child, I had two recurring dreams.
When I was very young, I dreamed – vividly – of an alligator coming into my room. I heard him slog up the stairs and through our apartment living room. With each step of his scaly feet, I heard a squishing, sucking sound. As he approached my crib, he stuck his snout through the slats and announced, “I’m just going to take a little bite right out of your neck.”
As an older child, I dreamed of a super-sized Tin Man type figure who stomped into view from beyond the horizon across the street from my elementary school. As he loomed larger, I froze in place, terrified. My Grandfather appeared from nowhere and pulled me into hiding behind some bushes; there he comforted me and we watched together. The Tin Man stopped in front of the school and his funnel hat popped open. A collapsible sliding board was released and everyone I knew and loved came sliding down to the ground in front of me.
So weird. And very vivid – I can even tell you the precise outfit I wore in that dream.
I still have no idea what either dream meant. Possibly nothing. And I don’t know why I experienced them so many times over. In both cases, the end was a something of a relief, and perhaps – at least now – a little hilarious. I think the most frightening part of those dreams was not knowing the source of the squishing sound and not knowing what was up with that huge Tin Man.
And that’s probably because that’s the greatest fear of all – fear of the unknown. We fear that which we do not know or cannot see. We are afraid of not knowing what will happen next, not knowing the reasons behind the events of our lives.
It’s really fear of not being in control. And truth be told, we are never in complete control; that is one of our hardest lessons. Very hard to learn, and very hard to accept.
We humans like being in control and when realize that we aren’t? It’s terrifying.
But fear is normal part of life. Some fears we carry throughout our lives; others we abandon. A little fear is healthy; it’s what keeps us cautious around things like fire, busy streets, and strangers.
Sometimes we hang onto those childhood fears like fear of the dark or spiders. I still don’t like sleeping in complete darkness and I may or may not do a little leap into the bed at night…you know, just in case there’s something lurking underneath. Silly? Perhaps. I know there is no logical reason for these fears to linger and yet they do, so I honor that.
Still, as I’ve grown older and my life has changed, so have many of my fears. They now have much more to do with my family, with life and death. I fear things like car accidents when loved ones are traveling. I am afraid of leaving this life too soon and not being here to see my daughter safely and solidly into adulthood. I am afraid of losing my own mother before I am prepared to face that day.
But I’m starting to understand that the real problem with fear is that is it just worry on steroids; we get caught up thinking about what danger might befall us in the future, instead of focusing enough on what is. Right now.
Like honoring my childhood fear with a little leap into bed, I wonder if there is a way we can learn to embrace and even love our fears. I have no problem admitting I own them; they are part of who am I am right now. Hello, I’m Lisa. I’m afraid of spiders and I do not like the dark.
I can’t control the fact that I have certain fears – none of us can. What we can control is how we react to them. Dealing with my fears is just doing what I need to do to soothe myself, just as any of us would do for a child who needed comfort. So what if I use little night lights in my bathrooms and hallways? Who cares if I scream a little (OK, a lot) for someone to come remove spiders from my immediate vicinity?
Perhaps eventually I won’t mind sleeping in a totally dark room. Maybe I’ll even try some desensitization exercises to deal with that spider phobia. But today is not that day.
Until then, I’ll continue to carry these pieces of myself while I focus on other things, things that I can tackle today. Because my greatest fear? Is missing out on what is right in front of me because I’m too stuck on what might be.
And I don’t want to miss a thing.
Lisa A. Listwa is OTV’s Author-in-Residence