Back when I was clever I had a favorite joke. No, not the penguin joke. I used to say that I didn't have a fear of falling, I had a fear of landing. It was supposed to show my grasp of semantics, and my wry, subtle, ironic side. Except that the joke wasn't ironic, or particularly subtle. Or funny. Truth is though that I have a genuine fear of heights. And I've spent a good portion of my life trying to prove myself wrong.
The house I grew up in had a second floor bedroom with a door to a porch with no railings. It was at best an eight foot drop to the lawn below, and more than once I had watched my younger brother take a flyer off the back of the house with nary a thought. I used to stand on the edge looking down, and I could feel my hands cramping- it was the strangest feeling- my hands would tingle and curl into a cramped fist until I went back inside. I can recreate the feeling to this day just by thinking about it, it was that powerful. Looking back I like to think that I was standing hard in the face of my fear with fists clenched so tight as to cause me pain. But it wasn't like that at all. It was some lower level recognition of all the possible consequences of purposefully standing at the edge. It was more like, "I'm going to puke now."
Now, there are some things that scare other people that I'm not so afraid of. Speaking in public. Being first in line. Day-old bagels. And yet so many of things that I am afraid of- making small talk at parties, being noticed, making phone calls, seem comparatively silly. Over time I've come to understand that often what I perceive as fear is really simple anxiety, including my fear of heights. My fear of making phone calls is honestly an anxiety over having to pay attention to what the other party is saying. I'm am a visual learner. Show me a picture of food and I can easily surmise how it was made and what it will taste like. But describe a recipe to me and I'm lost by the time I hear, "First you..." I'm the same on the phone. My mind wanders like a monkey. I try to take notes. I try making mental pictures. Nothing works. Its frustrating. So I tend to avoid the phone. I use email and messaging copiously. At parties, where I am equally likely to be expected to converse, I park near the food. Or a door. Problem solved.
Last spring I stood at the rim of the Letchworth gorge. My entire body vibrated and tingled, my hands curled and cramped. And in an instant I understood my anxiety. It is an anxiety over trust. Do I trust the two inch thick tempered glass viewing platform on the Kinzua bridge to not let go beneath my feet? Do I trust the one hundred thirty year old iron railing at the edge of the Thirty Mile Point lighthouse to not snap when I lean on it? Do I trust the rocky ledge at Letchworth to not give way and plunge me three hundred feet down the side of the precipice? And do I trust myself to want turn and walk away from the edge? But bottom line it is still just an anxiety, and it is based entirely on an uncertainty of outcome. And to a degree, so is fear.
But even though they share kindred traits, fear and anxiety are not siblings but rather cousins, with entirely different family dynamics. Anxiety can range from annoying to crippling in its intensity. The same anxiety might slow one person but stop another in their tracks. Anxiety is situational and transient. It waxes and wanes. I understand, or at least acknowledge, my most of my anxieties and try when I can to stretch their limits. But Fear is different. Fear is bigger and more profound. Fear is, well, fear. Because fear, for all its ferocity, hides within its roar a siren's call. Fear is a challenge, a call to action. Fear is the ego whispering, "You don't dare." Fears are the wishes we dare not make. Fears are risks we dare not take.
For instance, I believe that I have a genuine fear of success. It would explain a lot. It would explain why I haven't had a solo show of my photographs in over fifteen years. Or why I don't book more, and more profitable, photo gigs. It would explain why the photographic triptych that won Best in Show at a prestigious regional art competition last fall is packed away in my attic right now. It would explain why I've sabotaged almost every one of my opportunities toward professional advancement. (Ego) "You don't dare."
(NOTE: I AM NOT ABOUT TO BLAME THE CATHOLIC CHURCH FOR MY FEARS AND ANXIETIES.)
Fear as a wish deferred explains the what, but not the why. Why don't I dare? Okay, I was born and raised in the Catholic church. And although i'm no longer a practicing member, I'm still imbued with its doctrine and principles. And If there is any one thing the Catholics teach better than anything else it's humility, wrapped in a cloak of eternal guilt. My entire adult life is an example of that creed. Catholicism doesn't by any means discourage success, but as for personal recognition the party line is quite different. Do well, and do good, just don't make a fuss. So it could be the legacy of growing up Catholic that keeps my ego in check. But it is also quite possible that it is simply the way my parents (who are also Catholic) raised their clan; "That's nice dear and I'm proud of you, but no one likes a braggart." Regardless of its source, it's an issue with which I have always struggled, and one with which I will never be comfortable in attempting to change.
But back to my main point. If every fear hides a wish, then suddenly fear isn't so big. Or bad. Fear becomes manageable. I get that now. So finally, I'm learning to dare. Baby steps. The first thing I did was to start a blog so I can think out loud, and then I invited people I know, and people I don't know, to read it. I even contacted a couple galleries about show possibilities. Solo shows. Of my work. And honestly it hasn't been (very) scary, even though it did involve having to make phone calls. In fact, its been a somewhat liberating experience. I've challenged some admittedly basic fears, and found hidden inside them, a wish. And nothing bad happened. Huh. Weird.
I'd love to know what fears you've conquered, and how you managed to conquer them. Just in case. Because I'm thinking, maybe I'll finally try a spin on a ferris wheel. Or wearing orange...