Today a friend of mine lost his mother to cancer, and the weight of his sadness scares me.
Like the great majority of people, one of my greatest and most unapproachable fears is losing people that I love. Fortunately my life so far has not brought me this type of pain, so when it hits closer to home, I find myself anxiously slipping into the shoes of others.
There is a real temptation to create distance from my most fearful thoughts. I do not want to think about the pain of losing someone I love. I don’t want to think about the kind of grief that lingers long after the tin-covered casserole pans are gone. I don’t want to think about brokenness that leaves me crying when I brush my teeth. I don’t want to think about the empty spaces left behind.
And so I generally do not let myself go down these super scary mental pathways.
This is not always the healthy choice. One thing that I am learning is that fear needs eye contact. Fear is a restless and insecure guest that demands recognition. The more I rush to wash the fear out of my life, the more powerful and pervasive it becomes. Fear grows when it is unacknowledged.
On a practical level, making eye contact with fear means I have to let myself go down the scary pathways from time to time. I do this through a careful dose of thoughtful exploration…. which is different than anxious stewing. Unlike anxious stewing, thoughtful exploration is time-limited. If I am going to honestly examine my worst fears head on, I give myself a time bracket. Sometimes it is five minutes. Other times it is a few hours.
I also try to find a balance between my emotions and my ability to reason. This is partly done with fair questions and visualizations. What would I feel like if X happened? How would my day-to-day life be different than today? What would I learn? I don’t try to sugar coat my answers, but I don’t bathe in doom and gloom either. In the example above, I know that I would grieve and that it would be messy and heavy as grief is, full of blinding sadness interspersed with confusingly rich moments. We would write eulogies and celebrate all the good things and be resolute to emulate our role models better. People would bring food and cards and say all sorts of wonderful things about the one who left the world. The sadness would hit me at surprising and unexpected moments, while cooking eggs or stopped at a red light. The holes would remain, but joy would come back in its own time.
I have heard that strangers become less strange once you get to know them. I think it is the same with fear as well. When I push it away, it grows horns and fangs. It lurks in the corners of my life and threatens to swallow me whole. But when I catch my breath enough to look my fears in the eye, I am sobered, stronger, and better for it.
Text by Jeana Schuurman
Art by Mariah Schuurman