MagazineOctober

Fear, Young and Old

I was a timid kid. One day when my mother was out of the room I saw a sketch on TV about a man who fell into an open manhole and encountered a wide variety of childishly terrifying fiends. Thinking back on the skit now it was just actors in rubber suits under the lens of an old monochrome camera. But in my young eyes, the monstrous beings who assailed the poor man in the sewers were a bad dream made real. What I watched was the precautionary tale of precarious circumstances that I could find myself in one day.

I was left sleepless, tossing and turning on the darkest nights of my younger years. If these monsters could live in the sewers, then what was to stop them from living between the walls, in the vents, under the bed? I quickly developed a fear of the dark. Once an invincibly fearless infant, I had long since grown past that into an age of imaginary boogeymen.

As I grew into the uncomfortable teens, these rubber-suited monsters soon ceased being anything more than a bad memory. The fear of not knowing what was waiting to strike at me from my closet was trounced by the knowledge that same closet contained nothing in the dark that it didn’t in the light. Dread caused by the thoughts of ghost hauntings and invasive aliens found replacements in the very real threats of anxiety. Oral presentations and social gatherings gave me feelings of intense uneasiness.

The invisible thoughts and feelings of my peers became like a surrounding darkness to me, hiding what I feared could be hurtful remarks and false friendships beneath the surface. Tomorrows contained all manner of unknowns and yesterdays had me analyzing and re-analyzing my actions not knowing if I had come off as someone I didn’t want others to see. I dreaded becoming close with someone I couldn’t be positive I could trust or forgetting to complete an assignment and being berated by a teacher. Overwhelmed and enveloped by fear of embarrassment I could not see coming, I played life close to the chest and paid no mind to paths that lead anywhere I didn’t know.

In retrospect, I never really moved on from what I feared as a child. The sets and actors had changed but the script had not. I feared what lay in wait behind the curtains, not believing it could be a real monster but fearing that it might be the beast of my own shortcomings. The stakes had been raised: no longer were the monsters that I was afraid of fully a figment of my imagination. The threat of embarrassment that haunted my confidence could pierce my tender heart in a way no closet monster could. Still, I entertained anxiety’s presence in my life. Believing I might not live up to the expectations held by people I held dear was frightening, but still better than knowing that I didn’t live up to them. In some ways, knowing might have been easier, though. While I was comforted by not knowing for sure if my anxiety was based in reality, leaving myself in the dark forced me to stew in my fear.

As I grow, my horizons grow with me, and that is truly scary. The things that lie in wait beyond my field of view are as ever changing as my own identity. I fear social blunders and my merit compared to others now, but as my life approaches its final act I will come to fear the death of my loved ones and even myself much more. In order not to stagnate, I must allow my horizons to continue to grow and for this I will never know what lies in every shadow.

Looking back, I spent so many years wondering what each new horizon would reveal and each time I pulled the curtain back I found it to be near negligible. I could not be harmed by boogeymen as a child because there were no boogeymen; the real harm came in fearing there may be. As a teenager, my anxiety about the things my peers thought about me was the real antagonist plaguing my life, not the thoughts themselves which I would ultimately find were trivial. I know now that my fear is rooted not in the monster but in not knowing the monster and from this I find a kind of strength. If the unknowns that I feared for so long always came up empty, are they really unknowns anymore? Is there anything to fear anymore?

Well, yes, there is. Natural disasters or deaths in the family are just as unknowable as they are capable of reshaping my entire life for the worse. I can find confidence in knowing that the small unknowns in life hide the harmless satellites of my anxiety, but these greater unknowns are in no way harmless. Ultimately, I am powerless to affect those dangers concealed behind blackout curtains. So as scary as they are, there is no reason to actively worry about them. They will reveal themselves when they are ready and I will deal with them when they are, confident that I am as powerless as I am irreproachable for their occurrence.

When I saw my first monsters on TV, I remember feeling true fear. It was such a strong emotion at the time and I will never forget how it petrified me. Whenever I feel that way now, I remember the times when my greatest fear was what lay in wait inside the closet and can find strength in the knowledge of how far I’ve come. Part of maturing is shedding these childlike fears. It is a commonplace transition but still very meaningful in the context of one’s life.

Like a monster in the dark, what lies in wait beyond your horizon is significant only as long as you keep it beyond your view. To lift the curtain is not to resign yourself to the monster but to instead dismiss it and step beyond your previous limitations. There will always be horizons and closets. But by knowing that beyond the edges in the dark lurks nothing more than what steps in the light, these unknowns become the setpieces of your future.

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