Choice, or otherwise, fear lives in us all. When once encountered, fear is a remarkably persistent character, slipping around our shoulders, yapping at our ankles, lingering in the quiet still hours, keeping us wakeful when we’re desperate to sleep.
It may be fear of serious illness, of facing an uncertain future, of the end of a long term relationship, or fear in some insidious guise, free-floating, drifting to suit a mood and context. Life is uncertain and fragile. We do not have to look far to find suffering, anguish, unhappiness, or witness troubled lives racing fast to perilous outcomes.
Fear is defined as ‘an unpleasant emotion, caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm.’ In old Saxon forms of the verb, fear becomes ‘faron’ and translates as ‘to lie in wait.’ Old Norse terminology echoes this definition, with ‘faera’, ‘to taunt’. It does seem that fear taunts us, goads us into behaviour we would prefer not to display
Walking to a hospital appointment on a sharp, frost-laden day, watching the morning sun rise and beat out the blue, I was lost in a reverie, contemplating fear. I have known fear intimately since my breast cancer diagnosis, some three years ago. The fear of dying from my cancer lingers. Two years on, and cancer free, I confront those fears each time I revisit the hospital for check ups, scans and general health reviews. I recognize that, and wish it were not so, but I seem powerless to rid myself of the burden of fear.
Once in my life I have been close to death, a very real close encounter when infection caught hold during chemotherapy and spread like a wildfire through my body. By the time I had appreciated the seriousness of the situation, my mind was compromised, responding poorly to the need for help. Sleep seemed the answer. The desperate desire to sleep, to ease the pain through oblivion.
It was 3am when I was eventually admitted to hospital, after a series of administrative blunders, and poor advice. My temperature had soared to 41 degrees, my blood pressure had dropped, my pulse racing. I had no comprehension of what was happening to me, but somewhere inside I knew, if I fell asleep alone in my home, I might not wake up again.
I was diagnosed with neutropenic sepsis shortly after admittance, and remained in a negative pressure isolation room for six days. For much of that time, those early days, it was hard to have an interest in living, when my body seemed so incapable of sustaining my life independently. It was then that fear retreated. I was unafraid.
That feeling of slipping away from the world is so poignant in the Bruce Springsteen song, Streets of Philadelphia, about a man confronting his own imminent death after contracting AIDS.
The night has fallen, I’m lyin’ awake,
I can feel myself fading away,
So receive me brother with your faithless kiss,
Or will we leave each other alone like this
On the Streets of Philadelphia
Fear has taken up residence in my heart. Just when I think it is safely out of sight, tucked in some recess in my mind, it leaps to the fore with a vengeance when I revisit the place of my darkest hour: the hospital cancer wards. Memories of my year long treatment, the anguish, heartache and physical dread of chemotherapy, comes flooding back with an urgency that takes me by surprise as I walk familiar corridors.
If I have lost confidence in myself, I have the universe against me. Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Fear is the very absence of confidence in our ability to protect or preserve our own or others safety. It is the emotion that betrays us, when we think we have put on a brave face, or kept our true feelings in check. Fear is the tears that fall, unexpected and uncontrolled, when confronting our dread. It is the anxiety in our heart when we feel out of our depth. It is the nightmare that torments us with alarming regularity.
Finding some way to build our resilience, to have fortitude in the face of adversity, must be our goal, yet it is not easy. I have been fascinated by fortitude since my teenage years. It is not an attribute hugely in fashion. It is largely an unused, rather archaic term. As an inveterate re-reader, I have cherished and long adored the horse-lovers’ trilogy and multi-dimensional novels, My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead and Green Grass of Wyoming, set in the ranch lands of Wyoming in the 1930s.
In these novels, the all-seeing, all-knowing mother, Nell, sees the challenges her two sons face and has conversations with them on important themes. In one, she talks of the need for fortitude. Reading that as an eleven year old, it brought wonder to my heart. This was something teachers never talked about at school, the idea that we might develop fortitude, to find our own inner strength when our external environment sadly failed to protect as we might wish. These books, and Nell’s little sermons, opened up a whole new world of insight and knowledge. How do we manage, not what is happening around us, but what is happening inside of us, at our very core?
The Sky Atlantic drama, Fortitude, is set in the fictional Arctic town of Fortitude. Aside from having a remarkable and intriguing plot, and quite mesmerising theme music, it fascinates because each character is tested to the limits of their fortitude. The environment is an immediate and obvious challenge, but so too, are a myriad obstacles, internal, external, metaphorical and literal. There is not one person free from challenge, from inner turmoil, from anguish, yet still lives must carry on, children fed, work tended to, relationships managed, against this threatening backdrop.
There are many ways in which we can sustain ourselves, but finding what works for us, what reduces or alleviates fear is a personal matter. It is trial and error too, and it is having the courage to reject what others may feel is ‘good for us’ in favour of our own personal responses. The need to work constantly to restore poor mental health, or build better frameworks to sustain good mental health are imperative, yet they are skills too infrequently taught in schools and in the workplace.
I used to describe the local National Trust property, Baddesley Clinton, as my private sanctuary, a place I visited often during treatment. Walking alone around the lake, observing the great changing beauty of nature, I felt a great sense of peace, a freedom from fear or anxiety or anguish. It kept me safe, restored me for the journey home and that great rushing in of the world once more.
Fear may live in us all, or reside in our hearts during times of duress and challenge, but it need not always be that way. There is a need to find a balance too in our understanding of the self, our mental health concerns and our environment. It is the ability to recognize that which helps, and that which hinders our journey away from fear.
How much do we work on our inner dialogue, striving to understand our emotions and motivations, and how much do we consider our environment, the very real living space we inhabit, the people we surround ourselves with who may be unwitting accessories to fear?
I like the idea of new oceans to explore. Taken from a vantage point of vulnerability or of strength, out there, new oceans await us. We must first, have the courage to lose sight of the shore.