Dozing polar bear, Indianapolis Zoo

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Fear and its discontents

Jennifer over at Under the Ponderosas has written a post that resonated with me. I'm glad I read it. It was a relief to see someone else address something that troubles me under the surface, and that I'd not really figured out how to talk about. And like all good posts, it made me think about the issue in my own terms as well.

It's about fear. First, go read her post.

Jennifer and I have two things in common: we both moved west from a place "where the mountains are rounded," and we grew up in suburbia. I rather obliquely referred in this post to a harrowing experience that illustrated the difference between the seemingly benign place I grew up and where I live now. You know, sometimes I think this place is constantly trying to kill me. The very rawness of it is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.

The fear in my life has two points of origin: the birth of my son, and my move west. Before that, fear was never much of an issue for me. Yeah, I'd always have a few butterflies just before plunging into the ocean for a dive, and I remember feeling abject terror during a couple of specific, dire situations -- one involving a bear on a backpacking trip and another involving a man I encountered on a different backpacking trip who unquestionably wanted to do me harm.

But my overarching philosophy was, "Eh, if I die I won't know about it and it won't really matter, so wheeeeeeeeee! Let 'er rip!" I was never as fearless a person as my freewheeling, cliff-diving, rock-climbing, car-racing husband with his everything-will-work-out-just-dandy attitude, but fear didn't make a deep indentation on my consciousness. I backpacked through all kinds of bear territory, I hiked alone, I went scuba diving on the reefs, I kayaked through alligator habitat and I regularly walked alone at night on urban streets that were probably not as benign as they seemed. And I just didn't think much about it.

Part of me desperately misses those days. Sometimes I'm astonished at how completely different a person I am. These days, fear is actually one of my governing emotions. I don't mean to suggest that I sit in a corner cowering and refusing to leave the house. But doing some of the things I used to do without a second thought now requires a lot more mental work. There's always this nagging little fear that something will happen to me, and what will become of my son?

There's a certain irrationality to it, particularly when you examine what does and doesn't make me fearful. My son was only a year old when I spent three days hanging around Glacier National Park, photographing the 2003 wildfires. (He wasn't with us, of course.) It didn't occur to us that we should probably be afraid until we zipped through the Apgar entrance -- just ahead of the emergency vehicles -- five minutes before they closed the park entirely. Going back now and photographing the burned spots, I feel like a bit of a dumbass when I realize how close we were.

Contrast that bit of idiocy to last April, when I was in a state of agitation for two weeks before Mr. T and I left for China together. My warm, competent and extremely loving mother-in-law was going to spend the week doting on her grandson, but I couldn't shake the fear. What if the plane crashes? He'll be damaged for life! What if something happens to him while I'm half a world away!? That drumbeat never stopped entirely until I cleared customs in Portland on my return.

And last summer I came to the reluctant conclusion that I will not backpack alone, or do much hiking alone anymore. There's too much anxiety involved in that sort of thing now, and it's no longer pleasurable. Plus, I've made a rational decision that there's just too much at stake to put myself to much risk.

In short, I've become a weenie. And worse than that, I've realized I feel a bit ashamed about it. I look at someone like my sister-in-law, who took off for a month-long canoe trip in the Alaskan wilderness when she was three months pregnant, and I think, "is she insane or am I just a complete nancy?"

Maybe both. At least, I'm almost certainly a complete nancy. Some of it's rational, some of it's not. Much of it is undoubtedly tied up in issues of control and vulnerability; now that I have a child, I'm at risk for the worst kind of pain I could ever imagine -- losing him or inadvertently harming him, emotionally or physically. For me, that's the emotional dark side of parenthood.

So, yeah, freedom really is just another word for nothing left to lose. And sometimes, I miss it.


Jennifer (ponderosa) said...


On the one hand, there's the fear of letting my kids do something or go somewhere that might harm them. And the feeling that I oughtn't to fear, like it's silly to fear (isn't everything safe now?), like I'd be holding them back.

And then there's the fear that I now have for myself -- not so much on my behalf but on theirs. I didn't write about it but I feel it, too.

And yeah: sometimes I feel like this place is trying to kill me.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I was also wondering if our husband's aren't related. Does yours race at PIR? They have days on which you can drive your own car on the track. My husband does that sometimes.

Trailhead said...

What's interesting about the first fear you talk about (what to let your kids do) is that people who have a certain kind of lifestyle are, I think, a lot more susceptible to being "ashamed" of it than others are. When you ski, backpack, paddle, and generally engage in "bold" pursuits, you're more likely to feel ashamed of fears that are actually quite rational. This is because fearlessness is sort of idolized in that culture for obvious reasons.

My reaction to the father/son skiing story you told in your post was mixed. On the one hand, there is something admirable about that. But on the other, I'm hoping that father made darn sure his son was at a point, intellectually and emotionally, where he could make a rational, objective decision about whether to take on the chute, instead of deciding based on external pressures about what his father or others would think of him if he *didn't* take on the chute. If you can't be sure, I can't help but think the wiser course is just to say "I don't think this is a good idea right now."

That's what parents are for.

I really think we're often too hard on ourselves in this way. Heck, if our kids are on a ski slope, or in a kayak, or on a trail at all at a young age, we're probably not teaching them to fear the world.

Either way, it's a balancing act I totally sympathize with.

Trailhead said...

Re the racing: my husband used to race his 1974 Porsche 911 when he was a young pup. Then he sold it to pay our grad school tuition and hasn't raced since! But if I tell him about PIR, he'll probably want to start again. :)

Larry said...

My kids are grown and off on their own, so I'm not subject to the fears you and Jennifer discuss, but when my kids were growing up I remember some similar feelings. It's a balancing act; on the one hand you don't want to completely shield your kids, as many of the most affecting and formative experiences they can have come with unavoidable risks.

On the other hand, kids are prone to periods of amazingly bad judgment!

Between the two posts, trailhead and Jennifer, you have described well the limits and travails of parental responsibility.

Trailhead said...

Larry, I'm just delighted to hear the feelings go away or at least lessen after they're grown! I know I make it a practice not to tell my mother I'm doing anything she might consider dangerous until after the deed is all done. I hope my son shows me similar consideration!