Saturday, December 26, 2009

Fear of Falling

The lanes have been icy and slick this past week and there have been some mornings that I missed my usual walk because I was fearful of slipping. Fear of falling makes me over-cautious. I find myself contracting my muscles, creeping along carefully, head down, shoulders hunched, watching for icy patches, looking at the ground instead of striding out confidently and gazing at the countryside around me. I start thinking about what can happen to people my age when they break hips and that thought makes me contract even more. On days like that, a walk is no fun. Better to come home, make a cup of tea and curl up with a good book.

But the image of that contracted self niggles at me. After a while, I have to put down my book and think about it.

The truth is, I believe, that at a psychic level most of us spend our whole lives in a similarly contracted state. Fear of falling makes us cautious. The possibility of calamity narrows our vision. It makes us shrivel up, huddle into ourselves, vainly seeking comfort by curling up in a ball, like a hedgehog, rather than remaining fully open to everything that is around us and open to all the uncertainties of the next moment.

When you think about it, most of us are afraid, most of the time, though often not consciously so. We fear illness, we fear death, we fear the unknown future. The great mystery that is life scares most of us rigid. So we huddle into the familiar—into our relationships, our work, our routines, our library books and movies: always seeking comfort. I’ve heard it called existential angst. Just to be alive is scary if you let yourself really face life—and death—full-on. So most of us, most of the time, distract ourselves from existential angst and our deep-seated fear of the unknown and what might happen in our personal—or planetary—future. We attempt to insulate ourselves in any way we can think of. Like seeking certainty where there really is none by following, blindly, the precepts and prescriptions of organized religion or other off-the-peg belief systems. In the same way that we seal up cracks in our houses so that no cold draught may enter, we fill up all the spaces in our consciousness into which fear may possibly creep. Thus we put iPods in our ears, jabber away on our cell phones, stay busy with our computers, our text messages, our social lives, our work, the TV…anything to stop ourselves from thinking too hard about all the unknowns that scare us and all the question marks hanging over us as individuals and as what may well be a doomed species.

The truth is that no matter how much we try to kid ourselves, there are no guarantees, no escapes and no safe places. I think that is what Christ meant when he said “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head" (Matthew 8:20) We humans are stuck with our existential dilemma: the dilemma of knowing enough to be scared of the future but not enough to be able to unravel the Great Mystery. All we can do is take a deep breath, step forward and say "yes" to it.

Opening up to whatever may happen, opening up to the unknown future, saying "yes" to life—no matter what—is, I believe, the ultimate spiritual challenge. And it is every bit as difficult to do as striding confidently down an icy lane on a winter morning, looking up and out at the world instead of creeping along, staring anxiously down at one's boots.


Jojo said...

Marian, Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. After two recent injuries I am often paralyzed by fear and it is a very difficult process to overcome. Please know that your post is very helpful and right on target! Happy Trails!


Hi Marion,
What a great post on two levels. One is the actual fact of physically falling at an older age. Suggestion: wear golf shoes to walk or look in a sports catalog for what they call traks. These traks fit over shoes or boots and have spikes that dig into the ice, excellent for walking when it is slick. On the other level... yes, I agree with you that we have so many fears it sometimes doesn't allow us room to live fully. Why not write a New Years Resolution list of some fears. Take them one at a time, over the year, and examine them -- maybe we would find some new ways to break out of the old ways of thinking. Just some thoughts on your excellent post. --barbara

Elderwoman said...

Thank you Jojo and Barbara. I do so appreciate your comments.

Gaea Yudron said...

Marian, I notice my own caution about icy surfaces and falling. I like the traks info, thanks for that, Folkways Notebook.

I agree with your comments about how we choose to buffer ourselves with familiar comforts and constant distractions as a way of avoiding the basic uncertainty of earthly life. It is a real spiritual practice as you say to let go into uncertainty and become fluent in it somehow, connecting with the essential certainty within. Something that becomes even more relevant for older adults, as we move to dropping our mantle, as they say in gospel songs. Best wishes for a vivid, rich 2010.

Tess said...

Excellent post! "Huddling into the familiar", yes there is comfort there and there's nothing wrong with that, AND we need to break out of the familiar and challenge ourselves (as you do so well).

Nadie said...

Marian, what a great post!!! I was totally immersed in on the topic of various fears we live with - some without our knowledge. Your post was so enlightening I found myself reflecting on my own fears that I've really never given much thought to. Thank you for this insight - what a delivery information!

Anonymous said...

Yes! A great post, especially as we begin a new year.


One Woman's Journey said...

Marian, a great post. No ice in my area - just damp and very cold.
Against all of children's advice - I have moved back to a cottage in the woods. Lot of clearing and I wear a stout boots. Still now more then ever I am careful and do not want to fall. My children keep saying to me "mama be careful and do not fall". I know that in my 70's that would be very difficult for me to handle.
Your writing - speaks to my heart.

Grandmother said...

I resonate with this post. I'm constantly facing my fears since I've moved to a new country (Italy), have to learn a new language and culture while making new friends. The thought of getting sick or in an accident before getting fluent scares me. I'm proud of myself for not stopping this great adventure because of my fears but still...

Anonymous said...

Marian--Somehow, I've a hard time imagining your being afraid of anything! Thank you for your wonderful posts.
Grandmother--That is wonderful (that you've accepted the challenge of a new country)! Hurray!
Cop Car

PEACE said...

Hi Mariom.
I just found out after 4 weeks in the hospital that my Ovarian Cancer has returned. It is a death sentence and it's so easy to let fear take over every aspect of life, every thought. It then came to me that none of us have any guarantees, but we don't live in total fear.

Trying to stand up here and live life without fear. It's not easy, but otherwise it's just not a life worth living.

Thanks for your wonderful piece...I for one really needed it!


KT Did said...

This was so inspiring to read. Thank you for them. Going outside of the box has been a challenge for me. I started riding a motorcycle at age 50... I will be 56 in July and still love it. I have now 3 motorcycles and 2 scooters. I will be taking my first major solo ride across the U.S. this Spring. Fearful...yes, but very excited. I will be popping in for some more inspiration as time allows. Thank you.

Ronni Bennett said...

Specific to ice, all it takes is one fall with a concussion and memory loss, as happened to me 30 years ago, to learn great respect for ice.

But I wouldn't call it fear. I avoid icy walkways for the same reason I don't stick my finger in a wall socket. I think that's just smart, not fear.

For what you're really talking about here, however, of course you hit directly on the solution. Quiet time.

Meditation helps. And during this winter, I have made a decisive effort, apart from writing a blog post every day and reading the news, to stay off the computer. Since I'm not much of a phone talker and don't own an iPod, it's the greatest time suck I know.

What a difference all my new quiet time has made. The existential questions don't go away, but I have lot more time to ponder them - time well worth it.

Terrific post, Marian.

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Will said...

Dear Marion,
I came across your writing earlier today and loved article about fear of falling. Fears, generally, direct a lot of our behaviours. Fear of falling can be debilitating because this fear keeps people inside and inactive. The title of your article caught my eye because I write a lot about falling and fall risk for older people (as a professor, this is the topic of my research). I hope that you and your readers might find my writing useful. I write at
Best, Will.