There are different theories floating around about managing fear.
Exposure to the thing that causes fear is one way. Or, lots of people avoid the thing altogether, but that can only work for so long. I’ve even heard of using hypnosis so that the thing you hate becomes the thing you love. Some people expose their fears to others, saying that silence gives the fear too much power. But others do the opposite, because the vulnerability that comes with exposing a fear is too much of a social risk.
It seems that no one processes fear in the same way.
The esoteric part of my brain believes that fears stem from some past-life experience, a soul memory. Another part of me thinks there’s really no explanation; that we just kind of accumulate fears like furniture. I don’t know what the truth is, but the mystery surrounding fear is more interesting anyway.
Somehow—who knows why, because I really am a private person; really—this weekly editorial has become a kind of confessional for me, a means of exposure that puts my personal stuff “out there.” I don’t know how I arrived here. There’s of course the fundamental truth that most of us really like to talk about ourselves, but there’s more to it than that.
I’m whipping shame’s ass. I have a voice here, and I feel like I can use it to say things out loud that I tend to hide. Bottom line: I think I’m tackling a deep-seated fear of being not liked. This editorial is perhaps my way of saying, “Look, folks, this stuff is inside me, and it’s not going anywhere. You’re welcome to think I suck, and I know there’s not much I can do about it.” Control is out the window, and it feels pretty damn awesome.
I’ve never been popular—introverted kids who want to be morticians are probably going to have to eat lunch alone—but my precarious history with esteem fueled my autonomy, independence, and self-reliance, traits I’m proud of. I’m most comfortable alone—a quirk that my husband is still getting used to. I sit at bars and people-watch; I savor movies by myself. I write.
But I’m not a recluse. I can’t afford to be. I like talking to people and learning from them, and I know how to make other people feel good. I just prefer to be subtle about it, to quietly brush against others, lock eyes with them, chat, and move on. I want to be one-on-one; I want to stand for only myself, rather than a group.
…I’m a Southern gal. True, my accent only tends to come out when I’m tired or buzzed, and I’m good at setting boundaries with people (to a fault) rather than allowing them to disrespect me, but ultimately, a part of me still holds on to the people-pleasing gene. The people I brush against? I want them to be happy to have met me. Totally silly, I know, but it’s in my blood. My father is from Berry, Alabama, and my mother is from Union County in East Tennessee. These are tight-knit communities where everybody had to get along, because everybody knew everybody, and one day your well might not have water, so you’d better have a neighbor who thinks you’re awesome enough to spare a bucket from theirs.
This unrealistic expectation I had of everyone else set me up for failure.
Really, there was a time when, if I heard a rumor that someone thought I was lame, I’d be brought to tears. It’s ridiculous thinking about it now, how I wanted every single person in the entire world to like me. When I got divorced five years ago, what worried me most was not wanting my ex-husband to not like me. Not whether I’d be emotionally and financially stable, but what he would think of me once I became a memory, so I left him everything, hoping it would keep him liking me. I don’t think it worked, and that was a wake-up call.
Mind you, “liking” does not have to entail friendship. I have few close friends; I like it that way. But I wanted people to think I’m swell, whether I thought the same about them or not.
Now, the great part of my Southern-ness is that I’m kind to everyone I meet, unless they give me a reason not to be. I know this isn’t just a Southern thing, but tourists say that we Nashvillians are goddamn nice folks, and we are. I smile when I walk down a street. I hold doors for people. I tip generously. I buy sandwiches for homeless people. I give up my lunch to the person whose order has been left out of the bag. I let several people in front of me in the grocery line if they only have a few items, and I don’t get mad at the old lady in line who wants to pay with exact change.
There are disadvantages to this, though. I used to let people bulldoze me. I got duped in a car financing deal once because I knew an error had been made, but I just couldn’t bring myself to say anything that might make the finance dude feel incompetent. My niceness, to some men, is mistaken for sexual interest. Hell, my niceness even got me raped (one of those things I’ve recently exposed here).
Another disadvantage of growing up in a culture of niceness is that it’s hard to distinguish the truly kind people from the superficially nice ones. I should be a pro after 34 years of experience, but I still have trouble trusting my gut, because, shucks, I really want to believe the best about people.
Now, I can be nice without the expectation that the person I’m nice to will like me. I’m a bit of a strange bird—I intellectualize the emotional and emotionalize everything. I understand that I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. If someone hears me, that’s enough. These poor people on whom I’ve placed this burden don’t have to like what I’m saying, or how I say it. They are free to think I’m a jerk. They can sit on the opposite end of a table, and I totally will not cry.
This means you, too. You are free to think I’m a turd topped with turd syrup and turd sprinkles, and I have no attachment to what made you think that, or what I might do to pretty-please get back on your good side. Atticus Review enjoys thousands of hits every month, so I’d be kidding myself to think I could impress every one of you.
But here I am this week, trying again.
If my wife kept seeing Jesus’ face in a bowl of spaghetti, I’d plan an escape too. It’s so human, the cycle of boredom-plotting-excitement-flight, and it’s comic to boot. How silly we humans are, to be threatened in the face of relative comfort, when dinner is on the table, and there’s beer in the fridge, but we’re hardwired to search for more and better. With “Freezer Burn,” Scott Miles closes the steel trap on everyday life, middle America heartland, and opens it just enough to let out a last-leg Trans-Am carrying such a fugitive. But it’s a funny thing about panic and conscience: they’re stealthy enough to keep the pace of a muscle car.
“Scarecrows” by Shelagh Power-Chopra is a muted snapshot of deep uneasiness that can’t speak, but refuses to stay quiet. The fear that lives here masquerades as reticence, benign anxiety, envy that hides in veins and pulses there, hidden. This pointed, swift narrative leaves a profound impression without using much pressure, like the slice of a well-sharpened blade.
Barbara Ungar unveils the peril involved in being a poet, and how fear has no place on the page, because—oh!—if you follow the words, they lead you to the dark periphery. Fear—and more, so much more—is worked out there, in lines, in quicksilver sleight-of-hand. Ungar gives reason to believe that “Basho Was a Ninja” and James Bond was a poet.
So now that I’ve broken open my biggest fear, I can concentrate on the more visceral ones: crowds, ridiculously drunk people, and vomit—things that, now that I’ve typed them out, appear to be linked. I still have work to do. There’s no shame here.
I truly, truly appreciate you reading what you find here, all cozied up to me like this. Where the hell were you during my fifth-grade lunch hour?
Art: The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893