Fear is a hard-hearted ruler.
When I was a four-foot-nothing wide-eyed kid looking out at a vast world unknown, I was deathly afraid. Everything scared me. I was nervous 24/7, always worrying that something would go wrong.
Some of my fears were well-founded. I was afraid of getting squashed crossing the busy road in front of my house. Some fears were only somewhat legitimate. Terror overwhelmed me every time I imagined disappointing my parents. And some fears were downright strange.
How Satan tried to kill me with a bowl of cereal
I remember the “demon bowl” of cereal. I was seven or eight years old, and my parents had moved our family to Atlanta, Georgia. We were going to help out with a church plant there.
We were staying at the house of some friends temporarily. These friends were also trying to help plant the church, but they were out of the house for some reason. So for a week or two, we stayed in a new place in a new state.
Everything was a little off. The weather in Georgia was nice, but didn’t turn on you as fast as Michigan weather did. The house was beautiful, but had all kinds of strange things I had never encountered. The stairway had a banister, the kitchen had a chandelier, and the bowls all seemed to be plastic.
I hated the plastic bowls, because they had unknown white stuff all along the bottom. As far as I know, that was only scratches in the plastic, or heat damage due to one-too-many times in the microwave. But at the time, it seemed out of place, bothersome, and disgusting. These are the things you remember from a childhood.
One day, I was having a bowl of corn flakes at the table. I loved corn flakes, and I was munching happily until I noticed the presence of a tiny black particle. It was floating along in the midst of my cereal.
“That must be something Satan put in there… to kill me!” my seven year old mind surmised, terrified. I don’t remember if I ate this little particle or not, but it scared me to my core.
I never told anyone about this, until this very day. It’s embarrassing to recall now.
This black particle was likely a bit of corn flake that got too close to a heating device at the Kellogg’s factory. Nothing more, nothing less. But at my ripe young age, it was out of the ordinary. And anything out of the ordinary, against the grain, out of spec, scared me.
This episode goes to show the ridiculous extent to which fear controlled me. How fearful would a kid have to be to craft a story like this to explain one black dot in a bowl of cereal?
How I ate a poinsettia leaf to prove it wouldn’t kill me
Later in life, when I was nine or ten, I felt I had had enough being afraid. I remember my parents telling my brother and I that poinsettia leaves are poisonous. I had learned that many of my parents’ warnings were unfounded.
Poinsettias are not a delicious plant. But they won’t kill you.
My parents were always big on Christmas, and I loved the tradition. The tree sparkled with a unique beauty I have only seen in Christmas tress. The orange-yellow flames of the fire danced as they tried to lick the top of the hearth. They cast flickering shadows on my little brother, Chandler, who was playing on the floor.
Christmas was my favorite time of year. Even at age nine, nostalgia filled my heart with Christmas spirit, and I didn’t want anything to ruin it. The fear of poinsettia leaves was not welcome in my family’s beautiful living room. I didn’t want my Christmas ruled by fear.
So I asserted my new skepticism. I grabbed a poinsettia by its festive red pot and took a huge bite out of one of its leaves.
Needless to say, my parents were horrified. They made me spit out the poinsettia, and may have called poison control. But I felt satisfied. The poinsettia didn’t kill me when I bit it. I didn’t even feel queasy.
Why fear is stuck so deeply in our minds
Both of these episodes showed how significant a role fear played in my life. I was so accustomed to and ruled by fear that I made up a reason to be afraid of a tiny burnt speck of corn flake. And I was so disgusted by fear that I took a huge bite out of a festive poinsettia plant.
Like most elements of psychology, fear comes from two places: biological, and cultural. Nature and nurture.
Fear is part of our DNA at this point, and present from birth. Fear is essential to survival. Fear kept our ancestors from poking sleeping bears and jumping in raging rivers. It kept them from playing too close to the edge of a cliff and from dishonoring rival tribes. Fear played a large part in why you and I are here.
Fear is also something that we have been taught from a young age. Fear is cultural, and sometimes it makes sense only within a certain culture. We’re taught to fear being late to work and school, but this fear is pointless in Jamaica. Ancient Mayans were taught to fear angering the gods, but this seems pointless to us.
Because of all this nature and nurture, fear roots its way deep into our minds and hearts. There are so many people who live their lives ruled by fear, like I did. There are so many moments where I still live my life ruled by fear.
We’re afraid to have that difficult conversation with the boss. We’re afraid to talk to that girl we’ve been thinking about. We’re afraid to start that YouTube channel or begin learning to code. We’re afraid to sign up for ballet, bring cookies to our neighbors, or apply for a job out of our league.
Fear is a clue that there is something in our lives we need to address
In modern times, there is much less to fear. Most of the situations we fear most won’t result in death. If you’re poking a sabre tooth tiger, you might not survive. But most people survive starting a YouTube channel. Most people survive having the conversation they’ve been dreading. Most people survive talking to the cute person that makes them blush. Most people survive an awkward moment onstage or an angry conversation.
Thank you Robin for this amazing quote.
The lesson I’ve learned: Usually, fear is a clue to something that we need to address in our lives.
We fear difficult conversations because we’re afraid of upsetting our balance. But it is that very balance that keeps us stuck in bad situations.
We fear starting something new because we are afraid of failing. But it is starting, failing, and starting again that teaches us the most.
We fear being ourselves because we’re afraid of being different. But being ourselves is exactly what we need to feel different. Different means unique, and that’s what we want, deep down: to be unique yet accepted.
That’s why I’ve been telling people that fear is my best friend. Fear tells me what I need to address next. The bear I’m afraid of is likely the bear I need to poke.
I’m beginning to learn to rule my fear. And it’s making my life better. Fear doesn’t go away, but we can learn to live with it. We can make friends with our fear. We can learn its habits. We can learn its likes and dislikes. And we can take it by the hand and pull it into situations that make it uncomfortable. Chances are, it will see that things are not as bad as it thinks they are. It will relax, and it will become a better friend.
Fear makes a better friend than an enemy. What fears are ruling your life?