“I’m terrified of my eyes liquifying and running down my cheeks like two great tears.”
“I wish I wasn’t afraid all the time…but I am.” -Evey, V For Vendetta
When I heard Neil Gaiman speak in Tulsa, someone asked him, “You write such frightening stuff–does anything actually scare you?”
“So many things scare me,” said Gaiman. He gave a few examples. And then: “I’m terrified of my eyes liquifying and running down my cheeks like two great tears.”
Most of the time, I interact with fear as either a kind of mental misstep (“Don’t be afraid; you’ll make new friends”) or as an indicator that I should do something, now, against whatever I’m afraid of (“That’s a wasp! Kill it!”). In both cases, my interaction is about ending the fear. About making it go away. Thinking back to Gaiman, smiling, and, if he’s to be believed, often afraid, I realized there’s another option. I could accept that fear sits here sometimes. I could decide that’s okay, and make room for it on the bench.
In V for Vendetta, the hero, V, tortures Evey until she’s ready to calmly choose death over cooperation with an oppressive government. In the moment that she does, V says, “You have no fear anymore. You’re completely free.” The image, here, is of fear as a cage from which we must escape. What if V has mistaken the problem? What if Evey’s struggle doesn’t come from the fact of her fear, but from its prevalence? What if our fear is not a cage to be broken, but a frost on the lake–a frost that makes me shiver, that suggests I move, that reminds me to pay attention? A frost that’s just a part of things?
When I was younger, on a kayaking trip, I paddled out ahead of my group. The river swept me around a bend, so it looked like I was all alone. Below me was an adult bear in the water. I was frightened. I started back paddling as the current pushed me forward. The bear clambered up on the bank, looked back at me, and disappeared. I didn’t know what to say when the adults caught up with me. I was still afraid. I also felt lucky. I felt awe.
Maybe my fears are the bears–better yet, the jaguars–in the forest of my mind, ferocious, sleek, sometimes slipping quietly in the shadows and sometimes roaring. Maybe I can listen to them, be careful of them, learn from them, or stand quietly as they go by. The next time I’m afraid, I don’t want to set up a hunting party. I don’t want to assume that being afraid (or being sad; tears, says Gaiman) is some kind of character flaw. “I’m afraid,” I could tell myself. “And that’s okay. That’s one of the things that’s here. What’s it doing? What else is here? And what now?”