Category Archives: Fear

We’re All Mortal Here

Being Mortal, Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

is what I’m reading right now. It’s a fabulous, humane book that looks at what the medical field is missing when all it focuses on is extending our lives. I highly recommend it if you happen to be mortal. Hmm. Any takers?

If you’ve been following my blog for a while you’ll no doubt have already figured out that I have a fairly intense interest in the subject of death. Usually this shows up in the grief arena, but it’s not just the “after-effects” of death that I’m concerned with. I’m sure my nearest and dearest have wondered often enough why I seem to be wired this way. But really, why is it that something that every single human being has in common with each other is so taboo? Nothing comes close to the level of shunning that death gets as a cocktail party conversation. Like most of my colleagues in hospice, bereavement, and other death-focused professions, I’ve often received comments like, “wow, you must be really wonderful to do that kind of work, bless you!”  It’s as if dealing with death and grief is somehow reserved for saints and the exceptional, rather than being as common and un-exceptional as – well, dust – to which we all return. This comment often comes right before the person’s eyes slide off of mine and start to look for the wine table. For some reason it’s not a very lively conversation opener.

Despite the fact that we’re ALL going to die, very few of us live as though that is true, and very few of us spend much time at all talking about it. Yet I don’t believe for a minute that no one is interested. Given a quiet room, some privacy, and a listening ear, I find that most people will engage in the conversation, and even eagerly, when they realize that I’m not going to turn the other way.

Let’s talk about being mortal for a minute

You’d think that the awareness of our inevitable death would create some kind of urgency in us to do something meaningful with our lives. And on an individual basis, sometimes it does. You probably know people in your own life, or not very far outside your circle of family and friends, who don’t need the added incentive of a terminal diagnosis or a serious accident to get them to focus on what’s important. But on a day-to-day basis, really, we let an awful lot get in the way of living our lives fully. It takes letters like the one Holly Butcher wrote  before she died at 27, to give most of us a kick in the motivational muscles to think about or talk about how we want to live our mortal lives, or how we want to approach our deaths.

As I age, stepping ever closer to my own death, and watching friends and colleagues care for their aging relatives, I find that I’m less frightened of having these conversations. Or maybe I’m just less patient with the fear that I do have! In what turned out to be one of the sweeter moments in my relationship with my parents, I invited them a few weeks ago to talk with me about what they thought would be important to them at the time of their death. We talked about what did and didn’t frighten them, and what kinds of support they’d want to have, and what felt unnecessary. I hope the conversation continues. It’s not a one-talk kind of subject in any case, and I need to tell them of my own thoughts and wishes – there are no guarantees that we will die “in order,” after all.

Despite that conversation, and all the others I have with clients, I occasionally appall myself with the realization that I still let the fear of death, or of the injuries and accidents that remind me someone I love is mortal, control me. Just yesterday, after our thin-skinned greyhound bounced Tigger-ishly into a sharp corner of our wooden banister, I held my hand over what I was certain was a deep gash in my dog’s side, afraid to move it in case seeing it would mean that he needed stitches. Seriously. I watched myself think this ridiculous thought, feeling the reluctance to move, even while I knew that I was being completely irrational.

My fear of what might be stopped me choosing to be aware of reality.

If it had been a more serious injury, my delay would not have been helpful. Luckily, the skin held, barely. That episode humbled and reminded me that it’s not all that long ago that I was avoiding conversations around do-not-resuscitate orders and medically assisted dying. I’m no stranger to the “If I don’t talk about it, it’s not real” phenomenon. Along with our uniquely human consciousness of our own death, we seem to be blessed and cursed with an almost limitless capacity, in our fear, to deny it.

Certainly we have more fun on the zip-line rides and bungy-jumps of life when we indulge in a little reasonable denial. And awareness, without acceptance and taken to an extreme, can invite terror and anxiety. But is denial what we want for ourselves, or for the ones we love, when it comes to knowing what we really want out of our lives and how we want to meet our deaths?

Here is what I wish for myself. In all mystical traditions across the globe, there seems to be an understanding that becoming more fully aware of and accepting of one’s own death enriches one’s participation in life. I want to commit myself to this practice of open awareness once again. I don’t want to keep my hand over the wound, to blind myself to what is necessary.

Life and death are of supreme importance.     

Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.    

Let us awaken

awaken….

Do not squander your life.

 –Zen night chant as quoted in Being With Dying, by Joan Halifax

 

Fear and Desire: The Challenge of Something New

Everyone knows that doing something totally new is a real challenge, right?

But then why does it seem like we’re always being encouraged to “just get out there and do it!” without acknowledgment of the stress involved? How do you handle the challenge of trying something new?

Maybe you’re one of those that greet the challenge of novelty with open arms – “Sure! I’ll try it!” you say. Your desire to do it outweighs any anxiety you might have, so you jump right in without worrying too much about it. If that’s you, congratulations! I have no idea how you do it, but I’m very happy for you (and more than a little jealous.) You probably have no need whatsoever to finish reading this.

If you’re like me, this response may sound more familiar: “What exactly do I need to know to do this right? What will happen if I do it wrong? Can I do it privately first, with no witnesses to my failure?” I believe, of course, that my failure is absolutely guaranteed. And that there will be dire repercussions, or at least serious embarrassment. If allowed to run riot, my fearful brain will take me on a ten-month detour to getting around to starting any project.

Working in a field where I am constantly asking my clients to try something they may never have tried before, I think I’ve observed most of the ways folks can respond to the challenge of doing something new. And it seems only fair that I should challenge myself in the same way!

 My current challenge – the video camera

I have had a difficult relationship with the camera (still or otherwise) for my whole life. I think my smile is weird, and I don’t even want to know what mannerisms come to light in video, where every eye-roll, unconscious scratch, and “um” gets immortalized, all ready to be sampled for a dreadful GIF. This might not feel like a big deal to anyone else, but for me, it pushes almost all my buttons.

But the thing is, I’ve seen people just being themselves on camera a lot lately (thank you Facebook) from family members to other coaches and therapists.  They look like they’re enjoying themselves. I’ve gradually decided that it’s something I not only “ought” to do, but might even have fun doing. The combination of my fear and my desire to be on camera has led me to really think about what’s going on when I ask other folks to dive into their own creative process with me in the studio.

When we really want to do something we’re afraid to do, we are confronted with one of the most basic realities of our human life. There’s a gap between how we want life to be, and how it is. The swimming pool looks so wonderful, but what if we don’t know how to swim? We’re curious, but we’re frightened. I think these two emotions are a major reality for anyone thinking of doing deep personal work. Choosing to do deep personal work with someone can bring both fear and desire right to the surface.

For you to decide to make art, especially if you don’t see yourself as an artist, might be a little bit like me pushing “record.” And to make art for the first time as a part of your deep inner work definitely counts as the highest degree of doing something new.

So why should we do it?

Quite apart from any benefits that a particular new experience might provide for us, there are some other things going on that I think make it even more wonderful. For one thing, we open to the possibility of seeing ourselves differently than before. Our ego-mind, with its eye on minimizing risk and maximizing comfort, often underestimates our capacity to meet a challenge. When we take one on, we get to experience ourselves as courageous, and that’s an incredibly empowering state, that can help us in every other thing we do.

Secondly, and probably most importantly, doing only what we already know how to do will take us exactly where we already are, and get us exactly what we already have. When we try new things and sit in the fear or discomfort of not knowing what it will be like, we have the chance to change. Indeed it’s the only way we can actually grow as people.

Having now made the jump a couple of times, and pushed “record” on a couple of short videos on my Facebook page and  I am beginning to see some results for myself. For the first one, I scripted myself and spent a good hour setting myself up to do just a couple minutes of filming. And I recorded it (much) more than once before finally I let it go and pushed “publish!” What fascinates and pleases me is that what I’m most proud of is that action of pushing that button (long delayed, overthought, and convoluted as it was.)  The videos themselves are secondary, and can pass away without regret even if they were good and without shame even if they were terrible.

And that is what I hope for everyone who chooses to step courageously into the action of their own creative lives. On the level of soul or personal growth, however you choose to see it, what you paint or sculpt doesn’t matter – but that you dared to confront your fear and embrace your desire to try something new – to paint or weave or write – matters immensely.