What Are You Afraid Of?

Duhme Hall of Windsor Halls, Purdue University

Duhme Hall of Windsor Halls, Purdue University

Crafted across one of the bulletin boards I maintained for 70 freshman girls on the third floor, as their barely twenty-something RA, was one question …

"What are you afraid of?" 

I used to be terrified to give speeches. Did you know a college speech class for just such a fear exists where the first speech you give is in the dark. Friends, I took it! 

Also Jellyfish. That’s current, not a was. Mesmerizing creatures bobbing along, I'm afraid of their anticipated sting. And bears. Growing up hunting and camping in the Central Hardwood and Great Lake Forests of Indiana, there posed no risk of running into Yogi. Zero. The first bear sighting within state boarders in 144 years only occurred in May of 2015. Yet, here I am, afraid of bears. 

As to the degree of my fears, they didn't prevent me taking trips to swim in the ocean or hike bear country. I would still run arms flailing into salty seas, pitch a tent in some dense wood.  

Awhile back, I read an article about how after 45 years, one of my absolute favorite Purdue professors, Tom Turpin (otherwise known as Bug Man) was retiring. I am one of thousands of "entomological consumers" he's molded over the years though his ENTM 105 elective Insect: Friend and Foe. You may have sensed my love for the bug by this point. Fun fact - if you take Professor Turpin's class, one of the first things you learn is that all bugs are insects but not all insects are bugs. 

Almost twenty years later, how would I answer that glitter-glued question?  Back then I was afraid of not acing my dendrology practicum or my dad finding out about my tattoo. 

I "grew up in an Indiana town," out in the country, bordered by farm field and wood. Haven of my youth. A shale-bottom crick (for the Hoosiers) veined from greater Clifty, dividing my wood. The created edge gave way for raspberries to pop up though a ray-hole in the canopy. In winter, I would walk the narrow ice snake to my friends house, two miles away. Though my ten acre slice of Hope now belongs to another, sold some years back, I can still close my eyes and be right there. Deciduous hills, towering American Sycamore, trunk thick with guardian arms outstretched, her grassy charge in her bosom. The mute forest, walled in snow, the smell of the chill, her nip red on my checks, burning down my throat. Or in a summer heat in the valley, under cypress and mulberry, listening to the running brook no city massage spa fountain can mimic. Mr. Red-winged Blackbird sang for love.

I fought the move to Texas. To the concrete jungle. To humidity-teased hair and fire ants.

I wanted to be a park ranger. Of course I did. And a writer, a truck driver, a crab fisherman, a firefighter and a slew of other "everythings" my maid of honor listed in her toast. I wanted to experience it all. Jewel bequeathed the words I had yet to find when she sang her chorus, "Swallow the moon." 

Sitting high up in the large-group stadium class, getting a bugs-eye view, exposed me to a massive moving world of stingers and wings and legs and mouthparts and antenna and purpose and something not as scary as I had always perceived.

Brace Yourself, there is a spider story coming. 

Professor Young was another of the Entomology Department's finest. He often came by the lab to talk to Tom as the beekeeping class I took would end. One day, after class let out, Professor Young and I began talking about my possible masters focus. I had fallen hard for the six-legged and was considering ants, a female-ruled social insect of utter fascination. Although, knowing me, you would have guessed bees. Professor Young mentioned spiders. Do you catch the difference? There’s a big one. Eight legs, not six. An arthropod. Specifically an arachnid. Can’t say I was ever a fan.

Perhaps the visible involuntary shiver I expressed caught his eye. I don't know. Professor Young promptly asked, "Would you like to hold a spider?"  

I'm used to handling all types of species, often dead. Specimens in formaldehyde, pinned to a board, popped up in quizzes for their scientific names by skull size. You gotta measure, folks, to know if it’s a thirteen-lined or a gray. Countless creatures - insects, birds, herps, mammals, fish, so many I learned by tracing my fingers over their bodies. They all had so much to say, held so much beauty and purpose and existence in their own right.

And yet, I had never cared to learn about spiders. Never had I hesitated to kill spiders. Spiders were not okay.  

"Hell no!" I quipped. 

"Come on now, it's not scary, I promise."

Friends, do you know what I did? I followed that man down the hall, into his lab of wall-to-wall shelves stacked with aquariums, each filled with spiders. Tarantulas no less. I walked right into that moment of sheer insanity of my own complete free will.

"Ok, we'll start off small, hold out your hand." 

"Start off ... like holding more than one. No way am I doing this." 

I did.

Mr. Young continued, ”You have to build up to the big guy. Now, tarantulas are like glass. If you drop one from high up, he could shatter." 

I went from being terrified of spiders where they all must die, to terrified of hurting a spider, where they still all must die. Confused and conflicted, I held out my hand. I expressed profanities. Mr. Young extracted what looked to be a spider because it was totally a spider, from an aquarium close by, and placed him on my hand. 

I expressed more profanities. 

Then I kind of got proud of myself. In that moment, only seeing my hand, maybe one inch of peripheral and the floor, I was locked onto that spider. I was staring at an eight legged terrifying creature of torture that could turn on me any moment and stab me with its fangs and liquify my guts and slurp me whole. Ok, not at all, but I was holding a spider. 


Then he moved. 

Then I screamed. 

And I dropped him. 

Mr. Young, whose name in this moment does not properly capture his white hair and grandfatherly features, in cat-like reflex, intercepted the spider, cushioning his fall thus preventing any spidercide.

I look up at him terrified. Ashamed I couldn't do it. Embarrassed I almost shattered his spider. 

“I am so sorry. I'm gonna go." 

"Wait! You can't leave like this. Sometimes you fail. Then you try again. Hold out your hand." 

So I held another spider. And then another spider. All progressions of size towards the big guy. At first I was completely aware I was holding spiders. Surreal and stupid of course. Then it morphed into seemingly mammal-like, anything but spider-like. 

The big guy was humongous. I say that like he was the size of a whale, which, of course, is ridiculous. The base of my wrist to end of my middle finger is 6.5 inches. This guy had to curl his legs partially under his abdomen to fit on my hand. He was the size of a whale. He was hairy and huge and I stared for what felt like an hour. I know I didn't breathe the entire time. Mr. Young was a murmur in the background giving all sorts of cool information about tarantulas and spiders in general but I didn't hear a word. I just stared. At some point, I said, "This is crazy cool, but could I put him down now?" I couldn't believe what just happened. 

Before those twelve or so minutes elapsed, I was scared of spiders. I was never-ever-no-way going to hold a spider. On purpose. The other side of my becoming twelve minutes older would forever change how I considered my existence along side those eight-legged creatures. And in so many other life ways.

It took me a long time to appreciate that moment as one that conjured profound life lesson. The addrenaline was there. I remember the rush. But the lesson of taking on fear was not completely lost on me. Mr. Young cautioned, "You have to try again. If you stop after a negative experience, then what? It remains a negative experience. If you keep trying, you keep learning. You keep growing.” 

What I heard in my head was data points. We don't fail, we just collect more information about ourselves. It would be untold years before the gravity of that fully reached my foundational core, but the seed was planted that day. Planted by a whale-sized tarantula courtesy of Mr. Young. 

What Are You Afraid Of?

Fear can hold us back. Stunt our efforts. Cause us to give up before we even start. Mute our tongues. Hinder us from living the best versions of ourselves. Fear is the rocky foundation holding up our scapegoat excuses. We're afraid to fail, so we're afraid to try. We're afraid to speak up, even when it's in our best interest, because what might someone think. We don't want to appear unwilling, unhelpful, so we don't say "no" to the latest request, though we desperately need a break. So we avoid self-care to avoid seeming selfish. 

We run the risk of creating catastrophic events that will most likely never come to pass. "What if I give the speech and turn red? What if I go to the check-out lane and someone starts a conversation or worse, recognizes me and then I turn red? What if I turn red and melt into a puddle of smoke, I've seen it happen before!" Fear churns the anxiety, ultimately keeping us home, ultimately causing us to miss out on a lot of potential awesome experiences. 

Fear is information to ourselves. Fear is another data point. The greater message in our fear is not that we are afraid of something, but to pay attention to how we react to what we're afraid of. Diving headfirst towards every fear is as unhealthy as avoiding everything that upsets us. The bigger event is taking that fear we're becoming aware of and looking at it more carefully, in a discerning way. If, in being honest with ourselves the avoidance is for protection, as in not going into the woods today because of the lightning storm or bears, then it's founded. If though, in still being honest, we discover the avoidance stems from not wanting to confront something in our lives, the information that fear is giving us, is that you should probably deal with it. Often the thing we avoid dealing the most, becomes the nasty zit of annoyance in the middle of our minds that just doesn’t go away. And it hurts. Eventually it’s all we can focus on.

We're incredibly unique and different as complex human beings, and our fears will not all be the same. I won't laugh at yours. Fears can be irrational, paralyzing or even founded in experience. "The last time I took the test, I failed it. What if I fail it again?" Yes, but what if you pass? What if after all those terrifying speeches you're ready for the ultimate fear —— having to stand up and talk in front of the gaggle of those 70 freshman girls.

Each time we work on a fear, we are building confidence within ourselves, even if the outcome doesn't go as planned. There are lessons to glean at every step and apply next time. Self-grace is key but needs our practice, just like learning to assess what our real fears are and what are we doing about them. 

What we're afraid of takes on a quality inside us. Impacts our decisions, affecting more globally the whole of our lives, our families lives, our work cultures and so on. Our defensive muscles contract at the thought.

Fear distilled, contributes to most of our unpleasant traits, issues and areas to work on as people. The first responder in our toolkit for Life, we engage its protective shield in a ‘react now, think later’ approach. That was good when large animals roamed the land wanting to eat us. And yes, definitely fear in terms of danger has its place. However, if we give too much power to fear in our normal, daily lives, showing up as unhealthy patterns, it can unnecessarily complicate matters. We have to learn to recognize them and where/when/why they show up.

Think about one thing, just one thing, you avoid doing, and I'm with Toby Ziegler, "I'll bet all the money in my pockets against all the money in your pockets," the root is fear-based. I'm just referring to his awesome bet, not a coup d-etat. 

I like this quote by Will Smith, “Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity. Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real but fear is a choice.”  

The other side of fear

I did what many college students do, I changed my major. My first declaration was english/lit. I was going to be a writer. I always was. I am. That can't change. But I had this teensy-weensy problem of social anxiety that bordered on agoraphobia. I survived my first college english class determined to get away from people. Somehow, changing my major with the end goal of spending my days in a wood alone because hey, I also love nature, didn’t seem to occur to me I'd still be taking classes with people.

As we're relational folks, it's not out of the question that perhaps you're avoiding a family member or talking to a good friend about something that has upset you? Justifying all the reasons. As fear morphs into avoidance, in the angst and worry of the outcome of how things might go down, we create a missed opportunity of experiencing an even richer, fuller relationship with a loved one. Let's say you try and then what? A fight? Discomfort? Being misunderstood? Not working it out? Never talking again? Ruining Easter? 

Reaching out in vulnerability can be terrifying. It's putting yourself out there for possible rejection. We owe it to ourselves to listen to ourselves. Our amazing sprits, intertwined in body, heart and mind, is ever communicating to us. What's on your personal bulletin board? Just what if, on the other side of that experience, in this example of putting yourself out there, there was opportunity for a stronger connection, more open communication, better understanding, deeper respect, or for the love of God, just better holidays. Will someone please pass the mashed potatoes? 

I maybe faced one fear that year by becoming an RA, with the bonus of free housing! But I spent a lot of college as a wreck, afraid to raise my hand to ask a question. I hated to draw attention to myself. I'd stay after class to talk to my professors one-on-one, in the safety of lower numbers. 

If my confident 38-year old self could go back to my 20-year old anxious self I'd tell me, "They are all just as scared as you. It’s true. It just comes out and gets experienced in different ways for everybody. When they see you trying, that bravery is contagious. The very act of trying over and over, even if you don’t get it right, will help you see what you’re afraid of isn’t a big monster that will eat you. And then one day, you'll raise your hand without a thought, care or fear. You'll just have a question to ask. It will be empowering. Amazing. You'll think afterwards you could probably even fly. Though I wouldn't recommend trying that. Maybe just hold a spider." 


Fish and Fear and Friendship

Fish and Fear and Friendship