In this very car I once sat — happy, carefree, my two brothers and I laughing, playing games, messing around, my parents telling jokes up front. Now, I’m the one who’s driving it. And I’m driving all alone, down an unfamiliar road that stretches out before me as far as the eye can see.
The road is not smooth. It’s riddled with bumps and potholes. Tremors pulse through my body every time the car shakes or skids or bounces up and down — even just a little. It’s far from a comfortable ride.
Tentatively pressing my foot to the gas pedal, I feel a familiar knot forming in the pit of my stomach and the suffocating clutch of fear slowly closing around my throat. It transports my mind back to another time I went away by myself. A catastrophic disaster that I have come to refer to as “The Camp Experience,” one which left me with permanent scars that even a blind man could see.
The only difference between now and then is that, now, I’m in the same city as they are, whereas then…I was on a completely different planet.
But that makes no difference in my mind. Five miles or five thousand miles — I’m still away from the place I call home and the people I call my family. Either way, they are not here with me. And yet, somehow, I am able to push through the discomfort for the time being, give it some gas, continue venturing farther and farther away from them all, simply by telling myself that I have a place to be and that I’ll only be there for a few hours.
I’m on my way to an appointment, though I don’t exactly remember what it is for or where I am going. The only thing on my mind is how I’d much rather be lounging around the kitchen, talking to my dad about sports. Or in the family room wrapped up in the warmest comforter in the house — the blue blanket — watching TV with my even warmer mother.
I push those thoughts away. They’ll only make things worse. Then I remind myself that there was a time not long ago when I actually wanted to attend this suddenly forgotten meeting.
I’m still lost in my head when I come to a red light, am forced to put the car into park. Not for the first time, I notice that the sky appears overcast off in the distance. It reminds me of the ominous weather from J. M. W. Turner’s painting The Shipwreck. Threatening clouds — dark and grey, as if an angry thunderstorm is upon the horizon. Outside of my silent cabin, the blustery autumn wind blows in gusts. As I watch the helpless leaves being whipped around against their will, I suddenly realize that my arms are prickled with hundreds upon hundreds of little goose bumps, and that I am freezing cold, despite the heat being on and the blowers set on full blast.
My thoughts begin to race.
Why am I doing this? Why am I driving away from the one — the only — place where I feel safe and secure, into the dreaded realm of the unknown? A realm that I have no control over. Why am I deliberately putting myself in a position where I know without a doubt I’ll feel intense anxiety? The same position that I’ve run from, scared out of my wits, weeping uncontrollably, more times than I care to count? Why am I going back there again?
The light turns green. Without thinking about it, I shift gears and then off I go again down the rugged road.
I find it difficult now to focus on driving with all these unanswered questions swirling around inside of my head. I need to know if there’s a purpose behind this unnatural thing that I’m doing, or I’m just punishing myself for no reason. As I search for some beacon of light within the darkness of my mind, I stumble upon the words of Helen Steiner Rice, from her poem “This Too Shall Pass:
If I can endure for this minute
Whatever is happening to me,
No matter how heavy my heart is
Or how dark the moment may be
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
If I can but keep on believing
What I know in my heart to be true,
That darkness will fade with the morning
And that this will pass away, too-
Then nothing in life can defeat me
Pushing through fear, or pain, or anxiety is a difficult thing for anybody to do. But Rice believes that doing so gives someone facing adversity the confidence to withstand any difficulty they might ever confront. I’m not sure if I share her opinion. If I overcome some problem of mine once, it doesn’t necessarily mean I can conquer anything that will ever stand in my way. Maybe I just had a good day. Maybe I wasn’t actually pushed to my true limits. The success I had in one instance isn’t sure to carry over to the next challenge that I face.
And as long as I’m alive, there’s always going to be another challenge to face. Another hurdle to jump over. Another mountain to climb. After all, life is just an endless series of adversities — of trials and tribulations. So what’s the point in even playing the game if I can never really win? And why should I choose to suffer when I can just as easily be comfortable within the four protective walls that I grew up in?
At the very least, I suppose it’s a start. A start to making my fears and anxieties just a little more bearable, a little easier to endure. It makes sense that, if I can weather the storm I’m facing right now, it should be easier to do so the second time around — and easier still the next. I get that. But the whole process seems so counterintuitive.
To lessen my fear I must increase it first. It’s like the old adage — without pain there is no pleasure. But what’s the logic behind that? What possible reason is there for me to want to feel anxious, particularly when I know my anxiety will never fully go away? There just isn’t one. No matter how hard I try to justify it, I keep running into the same brick wall. I feel as if I’m going around in circles. And my will to press onward is beginning to falter.
Suddenly, I’m acutely aware of the green mile markers on the side of the road, counting down the distance to the next exit, each one a reminder of the other option I have. The easy way out that I can take if I want to. And I do want to — now more than ever. It’s getting harder and harder to breathe in the suddenly stuffy car. The air seems somehow thin and thick at the same time. Butterflies swarm around the tightening knot in my stomach. A cold shiver slowly creeps up my spine.
I look now to the marker up ahead of me — two more miles to go. The sight is reassuring and I sigh with relief. It’ll all be over soon, I tell myself. I’ll be back with them in no time.
Returning my gaze to the road, I glimpse something on the passenger seat out of the corner of my eye. It’s a copy of Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume — the book that I’m currently reading. Looking at it, one particular passage that I recently read surfaces in my mind:
Each one of us must confront our own fears, must come face to face with them. How we handle these fears will determine where we go with the rest of our lives. To experience adventure or to be limited by the fear of it…I can’t let safety and security become the focus of my life.
Fear is unavoidable. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Blume recognizes this, but in her opinion, it’s not important. It’s simply a fact. What’s important is how we cope with our fears, for the way we handle them is what shapes our future. Will we be a slave to them? Let them limit the places we go, the things we do? Or will we find a way to deal with our fears, to be free to lead the lives we choose?
Our gut reaction is to flee from fear — as far away as we can, back to wherever we feel safe, at ease. It’s natural. It’s self-preservation. When confronted with the choice between fight or flight, we generally select flight without a second thought. Our survival instincts kick in and we think to ourselves, I want to get the hell out of here right now!
But how can we ever know whether we can beat our fears if we don’t stay and put up a fight? How can we ever succeed if we don’t even try?
Or perhaps that’s not the right question to be asking. Perhaps I’ve been going about this all wrong the whole time. Maybe it isn’t about overcoming my fear outright but rather learning to manage it as best I can.
Just up ahead I glimpse an exit sign come into view, where the road forks ever so slightly. I recognize it immediately, for I have taken this very same off-ramp many times before, straight back into the open arms that await my return.
As I stare at it, the sign seems to call out to me. “Take me,” it says. “You know me. You know that I am smooth and easy to navigate. You know where I lead and what is in store for you there. Come on — take me. Come on…”
I’m seriously tempted to succumb to its allure. The urge feels near-irresistible. I can feel my hands starting to turn the steering wheel towards the exit — as if they have a mind of their own — while in my mind’s eye I visualize every twist and turn of the way home, phantom-feel my fear and worry melt away.
But as I contemplate which path I must take, Blume’s words suddenly surface in my mind. At this moment, I am face to face with my fears. According to her, the question remains: how will I deal with it? Will I slip back into my comfort zone that is the safe, the secure, the familiar? Or will I try to stick it out, try to push through the anxiety, attempt to find a way to handle the situation?
I look now down the dark road that lies before me. However daunting it might seem, I know that there is still adventure to be had along its uncharted course. New adventures. New experiences. There is risk involved, to be sure, but there is also reward. I can think of ten million excuses why I shouldn’t to go down it. The very same excuses that have kept me from exploring it in the past. But for the first time, the prospect of freedom outweighs them all.
The prospect of liberation from fear.
As I catch a fleeting glimpse of the exit sign in my rear-view mirror, worry and uncertainty stomp rampant through mind, while thoughts of my family tug at my heartstrings. And for a split second I regret my decision. I just want to turn the car right back around, gun it until I’m home. But then, a thought suddenly occurs to me. A comforting thought.
We can live our lives in perpetual safety, never venturing far from the familiar places and situations where we feel most secure, fearing all possible things in the world that can harm us. Or we can embrace our worries, accept they exist, and run towards them instead of away.
We can live life on our own terms.