Archive for the ‘fear’ Tag

Inconvenient Courage   Leave a comment

CourageI’m still learning courage, just as we all are.  Tests along the way, but no endpoint, no “I’m as brave now as I can be.”  Courage is a practice.  And I’ve learned that I miss opportunities for bravery where I need to, and can, practice it daily — in the face of my lazinesses and indulgences.  These opportunities don’t look particularly heroic or brave, but that’s because I’m still learning what courage is. Too often I think it’s something somebody else has, or needs to have.  Or I bewail its lack in others to whom I give power over my life, giving away the courage I already have.  I slip into fear, and then into denial as soon as someone points it out, makes me aware, that I’m acting out of fear.

These are not words of self-blame.  They’re words of clearing away, of washing the dishes, polishing the silver, emptying the ash from the woodstove. They are words of working the soil, turning the compost, preparing the growing space for the season to come.  Actions that make room for courage to happen.  As I prepare for health reasons to leave this teaching career of almost two decades at a private boarding high school, I look for new work.  Some of it, some of what I know I need to do, doesn’t offer a paycheck.  Some asks me for payment instead, and of a different kind.

Sometimes courage is just inconvenient.  I’ll do it, whatever has to be done.  If I’m the penguin next off the ice floe, I know that water’s cold.  I’m not looking forward to it, but I know it’s necessary.  I bring the best heart to it I can, if not for my own sake at this moment, then for others, as I move forward. Plunge.  Afterward, I discover — maybe — that was courage.  At the time I thought it was “just living my life.”  “Guess what,” my life says back at me.  “No difference.”

In the end, curiosity is stronger than fear. If I can imagine something different, I’m halfway there.  Just catch a hint of it, a flavor, a whisper of something new yet also oddly familiar.  There it is again …

Teacher, counselor and author Stephen Jenkinson has become a voice I listen to (“Yes, I hear voices”), to see what I can learn from him.  He speaks, among many other things, about our need for elders — for people who have done the work and learned and earned wisdom.  He talks about cultural death and the need for witness:

There is a lot of work to be done now, right now, in our time. Some of it is ecological, some political and economic, but all of it is cultural. Work I think is best understood as ‘the thing you’re least inclined to do’, and so we have our work cut out for us. The dominant culture, as near as I can tell, is in the beginnings of a terminal swoon. I don’t think it can be avoided. It’s end can only be prolonged or prompted, veiled or midwifed; those are our choices. The dominant culture was not built as if the last five hundred years on these shores had happened; it was built in spite of those years. It was built with a shrug to the past, and with the view that the past is gone. That is the principal reason for its ending. A culture unwilling to know its ragged, arbitrary origins is fated to a kind of perpetual, uninitiated adolescence, and it is by this adolescent spirit of privilege and entitlement and dangerous amnesia that our culture is known in the world.

We have to be in the culture making business, and soon. Real culture is not built on bad myths of superiority or inevitability or victory. It is built by people willing to learn and remember the stories that slipped from view, the rest of the truth that the empire won’t authorize. That learning and remembering costs people dearly. The work of building culture is learning and remembering how things have come to be as they are, without recourse to premature, temporary fixes, or to depression and despair. The way things are now, despair is a laziness no one can afford.*

That’s useful:  knowing what I can afford.  Fear leaves, despair leaves, when I know I can’t afford them any longer.  Not a matter of will, or often even of anything other than a realization one day.  A judgment, wisdom coming at last.  Something taking its place — the place of fear — but also something taking its own place, its rightful position all along.  Something bigger, more important.  Fear turns out to be just a temporary place-holder, a filler, padding, a zero that ultimately let me count how many spaces have room for something more, native from the beginning.  Return.

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*From “There’s grief in coming home“.

Thanks to Philip Carr-Gomm for sending me a link to Griefwalker, a moving and provocative video about some of Stephen’s work.  You can watch a trailer here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=xLQWM2j3AVg

You can watch the whole film, approximately 70 minutes long, here:

http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/7728/GRIEFWALKER

Nerds and Fear   Leave a comment

Nerds talk a lot, one way or another.  If they don’t speak, they write.  That’s annoying, because it’s often hard to get them to shut up.  And now, armed as they are with blogs and email and Twitter and Facebook and Myspace and a myriad of other venues — well, you get where I’m going with this.  More words than people on the planet, every single day.

But while not all of us are Nerds, or even nerds, one thing we all face, nerd or otherwise, is fear. Since we often do our level best not to talk about fear, why not put the nerd instinct to good use?  Resist the flow.  Be awkward, that thing nerds excel at, and talk about it.  (Along the way I get to include a Youtube link, and references to the plague, Jesus, and a medieval poem.  Good stuff — a regular pot-luck entry.)

One big fear, of course, is fear of death.  Reader, if you’ve found a sure-fire way around it, get busy marketing.  You’re set to make your fortune.  And no, I’m not talking about any Afterwards.  That’s a separate post.  I mean the process, the whole sucky thang of the roof caving in on the house, the ground floor dropping away into the basement, and the walls tumbling down. The Demolition (or Eviction, depending on your take regarding a Landlord).  The Snuff, the Blowout, the Final Exit, the Nobody Home of your life.

Have I got you thoroughly depressed, and on your weekend, too?  Sorry for that, though I won’t apologize for the topic.  If we’re going to be morbid, let’s do it right, with style and flair, and a literary reference.  Here’s your serving for the day.  There’s a well-known Middle English poem I keep coming across from time to time which partly inspired this post.  I read it in college and I’ve taught it in high school in British Lit.  Pause here for a digression — just skip the rest of this paragraph, and the next one, if you’re in an impatient mood when you read this.

Still with me?  OK. Yes, I get it — unless you’re also a fan, Middle English is next door to Old English and Beowulf and all that other stuff your high school or college English teacher inflicted on you.  Or if it wasn’t English, it was something else.  Let’s just acknowledge that at one time or another you’ve been on the receiving end of, and made to suffer for, an intellectual enthusiasm or obsession you didn’t share.  And no —  I’ve never shed the geek/nerd label since it first attached itself sometime in high school — the difference nowadays is that I make my living from it as a teacher.  It’s as if I wrote a book called Nerdiness for Fun and Profit.  Which might actually sell.  So I’ll apologize in advance for whatever my educational peers have put you through — you and my own students.

So here’s an excerpt from approximately the first half of the poem.  The spelling’s been modernized, and the few words that haven’t made it through into modern English are clear enough in context that you should be able to catch the gist without me being even more nerdy and annotating the damn thing.  But I’ll do it anyway.  And one other note:  the Latin tag in italics translates as “The fear of death disturbs me.”

In what estate so ever I be
Timor mortis conturbat me.

As I went on a merry morning,
I heard a bird both weep and sing.
This was the tenor of her talking: [substance, topic]
Timor mortis conturbat me.

I asked that bird what she meant:
“I am a musket both fair and gent; [sparrowhawk/nobly-born]
For dread of death I am all shent: [ashamed, confused]
Timor mortis conturbat me.

When I shall die, I know no day;
What country or place I cannot say;
Wherefore this song sing I may:
Timor mortis conturbat me.”

In medieval Europe death was everywhere.  People died at home, people died young, and people died from — among other things — the series of perfectly nasty plagues that swept Europe and took out a good third of the population.  Today we’ve got it easy in many ways.  Our life expectancy is twice that of the 1400s, we can usually moderate pain through medication, and many medieval diseases have been eliminated.  No, I’m not asking you to be ever so grateful and click on over to EasyDeath.com.  But what’s interesting is that the speaker of the poem isn’t concerned with pain but with uncertainty.  It’s that sense of being ambushed by an invisible assailant that adds to our fear.

There are several things to say, Druidic and otherwise, in response.  First, those who’ve had out-of-body experiences often report that they’ve lost their fear of death.  You may be one of those people yourself.  To quote Genesis (the band this time–not the book–in their song “Carpet Crawlers”), “You’ve got to get in to get out.”  Or in this case, get into other states of reality, see that this one is one among many, and that leaving this one is less of a Big Deal.  These kinds of experiences are more common than we’re lead to believe, and those who’ve had them often keep quiet about it because of the general atmosphere of fear, skepticism, and materialism that denies whole facets of human existence.  What I’ll say for victims of these mindsets is that they deserve compassion for living on the porch and never venturing into the house, never bothering to find out if there even is a house.

A powerful technique I’ve found is to send love to my fears.  I can make it a daily prayer.  If we’re worried about a difficult dying, send love to that future self which will die.  Break down the patterns of fear that sap and sabotage our present possibilities for joy.  As Jesus observed, “Perfect love casts out fear.”  And don’t worry if your love isn’t “perfect.”  Any love is a good start, an improvement on dread.  Most fear is learned.

For those of us who believe in or have had experience of other lives, the sense of deja-vu often replaces fear.  Gotta go through it all — again!

I’ll close with another citation, which I find Druidic in sensibility.  This one I ran across in school, decades back, and copied down into my journal.  The paper I’m reading from as I type this is yellowed and crinkling on the edges.   It describes a kind of initiation.  The quotation is long but I hope worthwhile for the “tough wisdom” it teaches.

The American Indian’s insistence on direct personal religious experience remains preserved when he comes into contact with Christianity:  he finds it difficult to accept experiences of the other world which are said to have happened two millennia ago and which are attested to only by a book.

An empirical attitude toward the other world is a difficult one to put into action.  It requires an emptying of the mind and the body, a humbling of the self before all other beings, “even the smallest ant.”  It is not as though the Indian [you can substitute Druid here — ADW] is “close to nature” and therefore found such an experience easier to come by than ourselves; he speaks of the journey as carrying him “to the edge of the Deep Canyon,” and he feels it as nothing less than death itself.  While he is there he sees a universe where everything is not only animate, but a person, and not only a person but a kinsman.  On his return from the journey he is reborn; he is no longer the same person he was before.  Having seen for himself the reality of the other world, he now has what William Blake called “the double vision,” as opposed to the single vision of Newton.  Alfonso Ortiz describes this double vision in the teachings of his Tewa elders, who “saw the whole of life as consisting of the dual quest for wisdom and divinity.”  It is not that the Indian has an older, simpler view of the world, to which we an Newtonian thinkers have added another dimension, but that he has a comprehensive, double view of the world, while we have lost sight of one whole dimension.

The way to his understanding is not found with the road maps of the measurable world.  One begins by finding four roads that run side by side and choosing the middle one.  The Road, once found, is cut by an impassable ravine that extends to the ends of the world.  One must go right through.  Then there is an impenetrable thicket.  Go right through.  Then there are birds making a terrible noise.  Just listen.  Then there is a place where phlegm rains down.  Don’t brush it off.  Then there is a place where the earth is burning.  Pass right through.  Then a great cliff face rises up, without a single foothold.  Walk straight through.  If you travel as far as this and someone threatens you with death, say, “I have already died.”  (Teaching of the American Earth, xx.)

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So there you have it — one of my stranger posts, oddly organized, with weird tonal shifts.  Hope you get something useful from it.  Thanks for reading.

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