Trick or Treat – Fear and Humanity
Some people wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, sure that there’s a slimy, slithering creature lurking under the bed, just waiting for the hint of a toe to recklessly dangle off the edge of the bed, that safe-zone which keeps the monster at bay. Others rush past the closet door in the darkness or sing a happy melody while scooting by, sure that these elaborate rituals will save them from being grabbed by the creature hiding within.
When I was younger, I lay in bed in the darkness of night, tightly clasping the beads in my hands, twisting them like a soul-tourniquet as I tried to focus on the words of the second half of the Hail Mary or picturing the images of the Joyful Mysteries and how pleased the Virgin Mary must be hearing everyone calling out to her in prayer all the time. It seems that each of us has a ritual we follow in life to keep us safe, protect our dreams, ensure our happiness, or salvage our sinful souls. How strange it seems that so much of our lives are spent either in fear or avoiding being put in a position of fearfulness. We’re afraid of being afraid – at least I am.
When given a choice between roller coasters and porch swings, for me the porch swing wins every time over the hurling, stomach-churning, scream-inducing metal contraption reaching up into the sky with its cargo careening past a blur of screams and God-vows that will be forgotten as soon as the ride coasts to a close. And it doesn’t even have to be the death-defying acts of courage which bring on the racing heart and send my stomach leaping for cover at the base of my throat. Just walking into a room full of strangers is enough to make me long to live on an uninhabited island, taking my chance on killer bees and the entire cast from Gilligan’s Island rather than having to smile and pretend I am having a good time. Fear is a four-letter word, and I curse like a sailor whenever I know I have to put myself into the spotlight and open my soul for scrutiny.
I read once that we are born with no fear, but I don’t really believe that. If it’s true, then why do infants cry when they are hungry, wet, or lonely, and why do we craft lullabies and bedtime stories to help ensure sweet dreams before we whisper the part about not letting the bedbugs bite? Fear may be a bigger motivator than money or sex. It may even trump ego – no pun intended, of course. So is it that fear drives us or is it us that drives the fear? Are we hooked on being terrified – junkies for an elevated heart rate? Every time I make myself sick worrying about an impending deadline or find myself procrastinating on a project, I can’t help but wonder if I’m trying to give myself a cheap thrill at my own expense.
When I reflect on fearful moments in my life, so many of them revolve around religion. Waiting in line at the confessional to share my sins to a stranger in a dark room through a screen of anonymity was second only in inducing terror to kneeling down to make my penance and remembering halfway through the first Act of Contrition that I had forgotten to tell the priest about calling my brother a bad name when he punched my last weekend on the way home from Mass. Fear is wondering if Jesus is going to come down and rip the Holy Communion wafer right out of your mouth because you didn’t confess to calling your brother an asshole and wishing for superpowers so you could deflect his punches and fly off, laughing lightly down at him as your superhero cape flutters in the breeze.
Fear is driving around the city for two hours because I don’t have the courage to pull into the parking lot even though I know singing in the band gives people pleasure and makes me feel less like a failure. Fear is having no home to go to and hiding in my car on the back roads on the county, hoping the story about the escaped convict with the hook arm is just a campfire story, then wishing I hadn’t thought of that one because it always reminds me of the Zodiac killer calling the phone extension from another floor of the house in a chilling and murderous quest for blue-eyed victims.
And the worst fear of all is second-guessing myself. Did I do the right thing by bringing that broken-winged bird home, even though he ultimately didn’t make it? How horrible am I to have had such hateful thoughts about my own family? If I had told someone sooner about the pedophile in my neighborhood, would I have been able to keep other girls from being molested? If I had stayed in my first marriage, might he have lived after all? Or would I be the one who died a violent and tragic death?
For all the ups and downs and terror a roller coaster ride has, I think our lives – or at least mine – has enough terror to satisfy me without having to buckle the safety strap and hang on around every corner. For me, the greatest fear isn’t the boogey-man behind the door or the long, late-night walk to my car in a dark and lonely parking garage. For me, the greatest fear is my own imagination – the things it creates to make my heart race and the thought of it putting in notice and giving out on me with little warning someday. It’s like trick-or-treat – a delicate balance between my addiction to fear and insecurity and the rituals I follow to both ensure that the fear and imagination continue and that it satisfies and motivates me, but doesn’t scare me to death.