What Are You Afraid Of?
On trying to write clearly when everything is maybe crumbling all at once.
I have been having a hard time putting together a new post for this space. I’ve started about a dozen, but can’t seem to make anything really come together. And there are probably a handful of reasons for that. But a dominant and palpable one is this; I am afraid.
And I decided, what with THE WORLD being what it is this week, and how hard it’s proving to think or feel or write anything else, and I might as well just hang with that theme today.
So I made a list:
I’m afraid for the Ukrainians, and what will happen if their power fails. And I am afraid of how that deranged shithead Putin will act out the next time they make him look bad, and who else he will send to a senseless death.
I’m afraid of a harsh winter, with energy supplies and prices being what they are this year. And I’m afraid of a warm winter, because that will only be further evidence of the ecological collapse we know is coming.
I am afraid this 27th COP will be completely insufficient in the face of our unfurling climate catastrophe, as all the others have been. And I’m afraid of what will happen if they don’t keep trying anyhow.
I’m afraid to see what prices will have jumped to this week at the grocery store. And I’m afraid to not stock up in spite of the cost, in case another supply chain fails.
I’m afraid of having to stay in Berlin another year, with its bad air quality, its impenetrable and hostile bureaucracy, and its pure-ugly winters. And I’m afraid to give up rent control.
I’m afraid we won’t be able to pay even our modest, controlled rent come New Year if I don’t give up writing and find some ‘real’ work. And I’m afraid I’ll go mad if I stop.
I’m afraid to find out which hideous germs my son will bring home from his daycare next. And I’m afraid of the government closing the daycares again this winter, as they have for large chunks of every other winter he’s been enrolled.
I am afraid of what crazy shit some of those Republicans might try to pass if they win their elections this week. And I’m afraid of what crazy shit some of those Democrats might try to pass if they win instead.
I am afraid of what intentionally aggravating nonsense will be foist upon me if I stay on social media. And I’m afraid of how much lonelier my tiny, working-from-home expat life will be if I leave it.
I am afraid to say and write what I believe. And I am afraid I will smother if I don’t.
The list goes on, but that’s enough to get the picture. These conjoined and contradicting fears pull me back and forth, and the result is that I make no substantial progress against any of the problems at hand. I thrash around, but remain exactly where I am, while they keep rising around me. And the result is the distinct feeling that I will drown in them. Perhaps you know the feeling.
But there is a bigger fear underlying these sundry fears, which helps explain my inefficacy in the face of them. And this has only become clear to me recently.
Several weeks back, when I was still unsure about starting this Substack, I had the chance to volunteer to be a test subject for a very intense kind of coaching. And while I was going through that process, I saw a video from The School of Life, called One Key Question to Liberate Yourself From Childhood. It’s about how the basic premise of modern psychotherapy is that you can try to sort out your present by working out what happened in your past – in your infancy and early childhood. And how the problem with that, of course, is that adults are generally left with little or no memory of those formative years. However:
“The legacy of the past will be active, rich, and vibrant, for better and for worse, at every moment of our actual adult lives. So one of the first questions we need to ask ourselves as archaeologists of our past is, what day-to-day in the adult world we are afraid of?
Then they offer a fill in the blank question: I am terrified of ____.
I had my answer at the speed of thought: I am terrified of people getting angry at me.
I assume some level of wanting to avoid having people cross with you is normal. Especially amongst females, who tend, on average, to be more conscientious, compliant, and risk-averse than males. When I did notice myself being socially anxious, I tended to just write it off as part of being an introvert. But in thinking about The School of Life’s question, and reflecting on how palpable this fear is for me, I now think maybe the level and frequency of fear I experience may be beyond a healthy norm. I mean, it’s like a visceral panic, an instant full-body hijacking of my nervous system, if I suspect anyone even might be even vaguely upset with me.
Which is not helpful if you go to university to study public policy, and intend to make a career for yourself where advocacy and argument are your chief activities. And it is not helpful for any job that requires dealing with office politics. Or any job interacting with clients and customers. Or in any social situation whatsoever.
And it turns out it also isn’t particularly helpful when you are trying to write honestly about serious topics in the context of the internet. Because the internet, as we all know, is basically a no man’s land haunted by trolls and turds who lurk around just waiting to take potshots at anyone foolish enough to stick their head over the parapet. Especially if that someone is a woman, having a woman’s opinion about womanly things in the public sphere. Then the scene escalates in menace, from trench warfare to zombie apocalypse.
I’m pretty sure The School of Life is correct, and that my mega-fear is rooted in my childhood. I would bet good money (if I fucking had any) that I know exactly who put it there. But that is another story, perhaps for another time. The point is, I realised how that fear from the past was compounding my fear of public speaking/writing now. And by seeing that, and getting really annoyed about it, I was finally able to start posting here. But it remains an issue. Especially when I’m trying to write about what I believe to be the most important issues there are, which are also the ones where we all feel the most vulnerable. I know what I write will end up upsetting people sometimes, even if I am careful, and even if they assume I am writing in good faith (which, again, is not at all guaranteed online).
That’s the nice thing about writing books; you write them in this totally private bubble, and only share them when they are set and solid and polished, and as ready as they ever can be for public scrutiny. It’s so much easier to be imaginative and honest and uninhibited when no one is looking. But there are tradeoffs. Sometimes it is better to write what you want to say in chunks, and not have to wait years to share them. Sometimes feedback as you go - whether it is good or bad - is valuable. So I will keep trying here, and hope that I will improve by doing, and that help will come.
So yes, I have ‘ferocious’ in the description of this Substack, but here I am, confessing to being a fearful creature indeed. But those are not unrelated traits, actually. Especially not for mammalian mothers. And I am trying to take stock of those fears, and how to survive them, and which ones I can actually do anything about, so that I can get on with the work of loving and writing ferociously. I don’t suppose I am alone in the need for such stocktaking these days, and at this moment in particular. So I do recommend you check out that video. See if you have an abiding fear that is warping your life, and compounding all the others. It might make it just a little bit easier to navigate the whole swirling mess if you know which dark star is guiding you.
…And of course, if you are a parent, you will, like me, start wondering what hideous fear you might be baking into your child(ren). I have no idea yet what my legacy will be in that regard, but I’m certainly keeping my eyes peeled, and will do my best to stamp it out if I can spot it.
For now, I am going out to do some research, and will report back next time with some art and artefacts I am excited to share. Who knows what this world’s bullshit will look like by then. And in that spirit, I have a small present; a playlist for this post. Songs for feeling freaked-out, fed-up, frustrated, or forlorn - and for forging ahead all the same. I feel significantly better for playing these jams today, and I hope you will, too. (It’s a little 80’s-heavy so far, but this year has some very hard-core Cold War vibes, and I am an 80’s kid, so this is how I cope.) As ever, suggestions are welcome. x
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