Friday, May 27, 2011

Fear Is The Mindkiller

I must not fear.
Fear is the mindkiller.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

                                                                                               (Frank Herbert, Dune)


"We live in uncertain times" is a catchphrase that has been used quite a bit in recent times and that can induce feelings of anxiety in social creatures.  An evolutionary survival mechanism, we are susceptible to warnings. Investigative journalism that used to rely on facts has been distorted into sensationalized reporting of events based on fear.  Fear mongering, which offers no solutions.

Truly "uncertain" times are long gone, especially for those of us who won the geographic lottery of life. I can state with certainty that I will eat today, more than once, I am also certain that I will not be eaten. At least 3 billion people do not live with the certainty of a daily meal.  I try not to worry about bad events that might happen to me until they do.

***

When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I went on a school trip organized by a teacher, who would be considered a mainstream environmentalist today.  She convinced the school's authorities to allow us to go live with forest rangers, not quite set up to be a camp.  For a week we lived in a cabin in the middle of a forest, without most of the comforts of modern civilization.  We were taught how to identify animal tracks on the ground and tree species by bark and leaf.

Evenings were spent playing games or listening to ghost stories by flashlight or campfire. On the last evening that we were there, the ghost story was not read from a book, but told by my teacher.  She told us of the history of the forest we were in and that there was a myth that a deranged mind was on the loose, who abducted children.  Since this was the last night we were going to do something different.  After the sun had set, we were driven to our destination and given instructions by one of the rangers, who told us that this was our final "test".  This was the test: There was a path in the forest leading to a lake and we had to walk toward it.  One by one. In the dark. Alone. Without a flashlight.

I watched with nervous excitement as my classmates were each sent along this path at timed 10 minute intervals.  There was an equal amount of nervous laughter and bravado, someone started to cry and did not participate.  Then it was my turn. I started walking. I could hear the cheering and joking as I left my class mates behind.

I was not scared. I was walking on a graveled path, I have never been scared of the dark and I was too old to believe in ghost stories.  I expected that the scariest thing that would happened to me was one of my class mates popping out of the woods, yelling "boo."

I walked in complete darkness, not moon- or starlit, but pitch black darkness. After about 10 minutes, I noticed that I still could not see any lake nor could I hear any of the students that were ahead of me.  I should have been able to hear them by now, I thought.  It was not just dark, it was silent. I had heard the occasional twig crack, but no rustling in the undergrowth, no animal sounds. Forests aren't completely silent, even at night, are they? Had I walked off the path by accident? What if I had gotten lost? What if they had left without me and had not noticed? What if that story was not a myth and there really was a crazy bad guy? Where was the lake?

Fear. My mind was racing with "What Ifs", my eyes were wide, but I could not see a thing, my heart was pounding, but all I could hear were my own footsteps. I wanted to panic, I wanted to run and freeze at the same time. I wanted to be anywhere, but in this dark frightening forest. I thought of yelling so that someone could find me, but what if the bad guy heard me? What if I got so disoriented that I walked into a tree?

That made me laugh. I took a deep breath. I did not know it at the time, but I reasoned myself into calmness. My teacher would never let us come to harm. I remembered that I was disappointed when I discovered that there was no wildlife bigger than a rodent in the area.  If anything did happen to me, my dad would mobilize the entire world to find me and my teacher would be in sooooo much trouble.

I am calm and calmed by nature. There was nothing to be scared of. Walking by myself in a forest in the middle of the night was cool. My parents would never let me do that. I actually ended up enjoying myself during the rest of this "test of courage".  Eventually, I walked into a small clearing turned parking lot, where my teacher and my classmates waited quietly. She indicated that I should do the same. Instead of whispering we all mimed our experience to each other until everyone had arrived.

***

At the time, it was an exciting experience to be shared and told. As an adult, I am grateful for the profound and valuable lesson she taugt me that night. Don't believe in scary stories. Don't allow irrational fears to take over mind and reason. Knowledge is power, fear is not. No matter how frightening a situation appears to be, keep walking and just breathe.

Thank you for this precious and incredible gift, teacher.

19 comments:

  1. Love the story. But I'm afraid it would have scared the S**t out of me. I am still a little afraid of the dark. Irrational and silly? Yes it is, but it's still there.

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  2. Brought me back to my days of being told that the forest was inhabited by the melonheads, pumpkin people, and the Lady in Red (who ran along power lines and snatched up unsuspecting Boy Scouts).
    Sadly, the real world contains very real monsters.
    "We have nothing to fear, but...fear itself. Oh, yeah, and the Japanese Navy."
    FDR

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  3. In the end perspective is key.

    Nice Dune reference.

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  4. I love the dark. My irrational fear is that something is under my bed. I've grown out of it for the most part. But I had nightmares about that damn clown in Poltergeist forever, as a child. Didn't help that I was way too young to see the movie when my uncle took me to the theatre to see it...

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  5. That was awesome. I think too often we don't give children the credit they deserve. What a wonderful teacher.

    And the Dune quote?

    :-) LOVE it.

    Pearl

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  6. Riveting.
    "Fear is the highest fence."

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  7. Love the message. Thank you.

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  8. @Sprite, I was, well not literally;), I think fear of the dark is instinctual. What she taught us is not to let it paralyze when it happens.

    @Al, no wonder you didn't believe it, I mean power lines in a forest, really?

    @Laoch, exactly! Did you read the rest of the series? Indeterminancy, Heisenberg and so much more.

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  9. @Meg, didn't appreciate it at the time, but my parents did not allow me to watch scary movies. I don't think the toy industry is happy about toys gone evil.

    @Pearl, yes she was. In hindsight, it was pretty amazing, even the scared kids did it.
    The Dune series is among my favorites.

    @dbs, agreed, not as tall as it looks.

    @Nubian, thank you. Glad I learned it early.

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  10. After surviving my first hospitalization 17 years ago (which would eventually lead to my recent heart surgery), I vowed that I would not let fear prevent me from doing things that I wanted to do as it had up to that point in my life.

    I am terrified of heights, yet I wanted to try skydiving. My first experience (a tandem jump) was absolutely terrifying. Yet the following week I returned to the Drop Zone and signed up for lessons. On every jump, in the plane on the way up to jump altitude, I would admonish myself for doing this and swore this would be my last jump. But I would drift down under canopy totally elated.

    I never got over the fear of heights or of skydiving, but I learned that I could recognize the fear for what it was and accept calculated risks. Whenever I encounter other experiences that brought me fear, whether social or business... regardless, I fall back on my skydiving experience, acknowledge the fear, and move ahead. It changed my life forever.

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  11. Trying Google Chrome. So far so good.

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  12. Wonderful Antares! I'm not sure teachers could get away with an exercise like that today, but it's a valuable lesson. I always have to remind myself to breathe through fear. Be reasonable, breathe! It usually works for me. ;)
    (Love the Dune quote.)

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  13. Terrific story, Antares C. Love Robert the Skeptics' tale, too.

    Childhood and forests. . . when I was a child, a teacher told our class this story re; fear management -

    Once upon a time a young girl (substitute here, boy/adult/ageless person) went skipping into a forest. It was beautiful amongst the birds and trees - lush, green and soft underfoot. She hummed as she skipped along, running her fingers across knotty bark and unfurling fern fronds. It wasn't until she was a little way in that the girl realized she was all on her own, that she'd not been taking heed of markers along the way and that she'd not been into this forest before. How would she find her way back out? Her heart started pounding. When she looked up, she noticed a large dark shape looming ahead of her on the path. She took a step back. The shape grew and advanced towards her. She took another step back, preparing herself to turn and run. But then she heard a voice say, 'That darkness is nothing more than your fear. Take a step forward and see what happens.' And so she did. The shape shrank a little, and retreated. She took a step back. It grew and advanced. Her heart steadied; she found herself stepping towards the dark shape with curiosity rather than terror. With every step she took towards it, it grew smaller and smaller. By the time she reached the bend in the path where the shape had first loomed large, it had assumed the form of a stone - round and smooth enough for her to pick up and warm between her hands. She popped it in her pocket and walked on. . . When she left the forest that day, she took with her much more than a small stone and birdsong.

    Thanks for waking an old memory. ; )

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  14. Have you seen this crazy cat vid, Ant. C?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/punctuated-equilibrium/2010/oct/23/1

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  15. Robert, facing that fear when you did is life altering. Skydiving is still on my list, not afraid of heights, but malfunction;). I know what you mean by risk assessment. A few years ago I "calculated" that spelunking is too dangerous, don't want to inhale anything toxic.

    We are hardwired to fight or flight, but are often faced with situations where that instinctual response is not an option. It's good to remember those moments.

    I often wonder what the evolutionary point is with respect to panic or paralyzing fear. Doesn't seem to fit into any survival mechanism.

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  16. @Sprite, hope it stays that way.

    @Jayne, probably not, although I don't think anyone knew what she planned. Breathing is good;)
    The Dune series remains one of my faves, Herbert had an encyclopedic mind. His aphorisms were influenced by eastern philosophy.

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  17. Claire, thank you for sharing the story. Exactly, from shadows to the dark, sometimes what we see turns out to be a nice pebble you can put in your pocket. I collect those;)

    It's good to have those memories triggered.

    Just had a look at the vid, amusing and weird at the same time. Lol. He needs to get out more:)
    I'm sure you've seen it by now, went viral, too lazy to link youtube: "cat mom hugs kitten".
    Stretch and hug; more lessons from our co-inhabitants.

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  18. Thank you for a timely and valuable reminder. Our minds are capable of talking such stink to us...learning to face, to stare down, fear is new behavior more me at a not new age. What a paralyzing emotion, what an impediment to growth and learning. Such a wise teacher you had, and trust in a parent to put things right if they had gone wrong. I would love to delete skittish from my vocabulary. Breathing is a good start.

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  19. Marylinn, it's never too late to start early. In contemporary society it appears to be a vestigial remnant.
    She was, although we didn't appreciate it at the time, but it makes me wonder about whether she didn't lay a solid foundation during an impressionable time.

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