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.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

My Life as a Squirrel

After several weeks of rain and overcast skies, the sun finally shone. And for a winter’s day, the temperature of the air was surprisingly balmy.

I suddenly noticed dozens upon dozens of tiny, moth-like insects, their wings silvery in the sunlight, dancing in the airspace just beyond my window—an unusual sight at this time of year, with all the swallows long since gone. At the risk of being anthropomorphic, I want to tell you that their dance seemed ecstatic.

I wondered where they came from. Did the warmth trigger an unseasonal hatching, luring these incautious creatures to the dance, only to consign them later to a frosty death? Or, like the squirrels, is their hibernation but a shallow one, a sometime sleep, allowing for opportunistic forays out of bed on any morning that happens to be fine and mild enough?

In my imagination, I am more bear than squirrel, myself. Burrowing deeply into my warm bed, I often fancy I could easily sleep right through till Spring and be the better for it.

Yet my truer squirrel-self responds, willy-nilly, when the sword of sunlight pierces the shallow crust of my winter sleep. Not only sunlight, either, but a new idea can do it: something noticed on a page: someone’s blog post: an item on the news: a message… Anything can awaken my resting mind and make my fingers itch to write.

However, come the darkening of the sky, the chill of evening, the winter somnolence returning early to my limbs and I am back in my nest, the nuts left strewn and only half unshelled, the paragraphs unfinished, the fickle flame of inspiration guttering and faltering yet again in the cold air.

There is much to be said for bear mode. And being a squirrel-type is frustrating, especially when one has not yet fully shaken off a lifetime’s conditioning by that darned old work ethic.

But problematic though it sometimes feels, on balance I am a happy squirrel. And I am glad I was awake to see the sunshine and observe those tiny creatures dancing joyfully in the ‘now’ moment with no dread of frost.