On fear, polarization, and softening in the face of fear

In her feedback to me for my possible-someday-book, my developmental editor Jess said:

I found myself wanting to know more about Becca’s relationship with both her father and her mother, and especially about how she formed her view of fear in relation to the two of them. I imagine that Becca’s formation of her own view of fear was not as simple as accepting or rejecting her parents’ attitudes.

I have been thinking lately about my mother, who would have turned 77 this December 25th. (She was killed when a vehicle driven by someone who’d had “a couple of drinks” hit her when she was out for a Sabbath evening walk in 2006). I’ve also been thinking about fear – of illness, death, holocaust, and climate instability – and about polarization – political polarization, for obvious reasons; and also long-term, entrenched polarization in marital relationships such as my parents’; and my own, every-day tendency to have seemingly contradictory voices staking out positions in my head.

It has been challenging to find a “middle way” between my parents’ seemingly polar opposite approaches to fear in general, and health worries in particular. I’ve been having a lot of health worries lately, and each time I have one, I struggle with whether and when to seek medical attention. My mother was a self-proclaimed “germophobe,” worrying frequently and vocally about the next virus she might pick up, especially when she had travel coming up or some other event she was looking forward to. (She pretty much shared whatever was on her mind with us, not just her health worries, so it was particularly weird to find out that when she eventually had something seriously wrong with her, she avoided telling us about it).

When I was a child my mother made me stay home from school if I had even a slight cold, and she would spray Lysol everywhere if anyone was sick. Later when I was older and our conversation was mostly long-distance, she would admonish me to take vitamins, avoid foods being recalled, and warn me about other such dangers she heard about in the news (my favorite is when she called me to tell me to avoid going near construction cranes because those can fall on people). She always expected me to call her as soon as I got home from a trip so she wouldn’t worry; I found this annoying, but ever since she died I’ve felt the emptiness of coming home and not having anyone who’s tracking me that way to call right away to announce my safety to! So of course, when I have weird new unexplained symptoms, I have my-mother-in-me, urging me to go to the doctor right away.

On the other hand, my dad has the opposite tendency, sometimes avoiding doctors for years at a time, despite having things seriously wrong with him. Now, he has many reasons for this, some of which are quite good (e.g. the more medical tests they run, the more things they find and treat, and many of the things they find don’t necessarily need treatment). When I was very young, and had the stomach flu, there would be a period of time after throwing up when I felt nauseous but it was mostly from the fear of throwing up, rather than from the illness itself. My mother was no help in this situation, as her vomit phobia was extreme. My father, on the other hand, could usually convince me that I was probably done puking so I could quit worrying and go to sleep. Sometimes he was right and sometimes not, but in both cases it was very helpful.

In general, I think my father was the one who made me feel safest when I was afraid. I still remember once when I was probably only 3 or at most 4, when our parents went out at night, leaving us with a babysitter to put us to bed. As I was supposed to be going to sleep, a thunderstorm was raging, and I must have been really scared. The part I remember is that when my parents got home later and came in to kiss their sleeping children, I had fallen asleep scrunched up in a tight ball. I woke briefly, realizing that Daddy was home, so I was safe. I peeled my chin off of my neck and shoulder, where it had stuck because of my sweat and my fear, and shifted into a more relaxed position in my crib and fell back asleep.

So, my mother was the worrier, and my dad the reassurer. My mother the voice of caution, my father the voice of courage. Or at least, those were the sides they gave voice to, the polarized positions they took in the family. We kids knew that if we wanted permission to bike somewhere on our own, dad was the one to ask. Many years later my dad confessed to me that he was quite scared about us biking to school, but never said anything at the time.

In fact I was nearly hit by a car once riding my bike to school. I think I had crossed on a yellow that turned red, and knew it was really my own fault. After I got over the initial terror, my biggest fear was that my best friend’s dad, Phil Bloch, who happened to see the near miss, would tell my parents. I was afraid of looking foolish; and also, Phil restricted his kids’ freedom more than my parents did, and I was afraid I’d get my biking privileges taken away. I remember trying to act like I wasn’t scared when he talked to me about it – somehow, it seemed like the outcome would be better if I didn’t let myself feel or show fear.

In general in the family mythology, I was viewed as more like our father, while my older sister was viewed as more like our mother. Apparent fearfulness and apparent courageousness were probably the biggest ways this played out. I say “apparent,” because, as I’ve written about before, courage is not the absence of fear. Perhaps the right words are timidity and bravado. It was pretty clear to me that being like my father was perceived as a good thing in this regard, and there were lots of reasons not to show fear, many of which amounted to wanting to gain respect, or not to lose it by seeming too fearful, too much like my mother. Part of my emotional healing work as a young adult involved realizing that, perhaps due to modeling myself after my father, I was not very good at feeling my own fear; in my attempt to hide it from others, I had hidden it from myself as well.

So when I have a brand new and unexplained symptom, in addition to my mother’s voice urging me to get it checked out immediately, I have my-father-in-me saying, “it’s very likely nothing to worry about.” Of course I have more reasons lately to be concerned. Is this the first sign of metastatic breast cancer? Or some other lethal condition, perhaps a heart problem caused by or worsened by the chemo? Or is it merely another of the parade of menopausal symptoms, perhaps made worse by the suddenness of the chemo-induced ovarian shut-down, but one that would likely have happened in a few years anyway?

The latest float in the parade of symptoms is vertigo. Saturday when I was closing the refrigerator while making my lunch, the room suddenly tilted. I went quickly down on one knee, to prevent falling. It was a fleeting moment, but since then there have been quite a few more of them, none as extreme as the first, but sometimes causing me to hold onto the wall or handrail more than usual out of fear of it worsening. It hasn’t been continuous – I went to my trapeze class on Sunday, and cautiously at first let go of the ground… and did fine, without any unusual dizziness. (Normally, my tolerance for dizziness is pretty high, and thankfully we weren’t doing things that involved great amounts of spinning that day).

I have been a little scared about this new symptom, but I was initially inclined to take the Gilda’s Club members’ approach – wait two weeks after any new symptom appears before going to the doctor. Meanwhile, the “harmless” palpitations I’d had diagnosed in June have gotten considerably worse. The dizziness seems not to be associated with them, but I’d already arranged to have a Holter monitor again, just to make sure that the worsening palpitations are still the harmless variety, so I wore the monitor on Monday, and duly noted dizziness as well as other symptoms in my activity & symptom log. It will be a week or so before I get the results, and in the meantime, I was preparing to travel to see family. Now, there is nothing like a visit with family to bring up old patterns, and perhaps I was having the internal war with myself more loudly as a result. “What!?! You haven’t been to see a doctor?!” on the one hand, and “Don’t be such a hypochondriac!” on the other.

Yesterday as I was preparing to go to trapeze class again and having this internal struggle about the dizziness, I finally decided to ask Don for help. Now, he of course has his own history with illness, worry, and doctors, including having several chronic health issues of his own and lots of experience caregiving for his kids’ and my own more severe ones. He at times seems more like my mother (usually with respect to his own health), and at times more like my father (usually with respect to illnesses of others close to him). This is probably a pretty functional balance (promoting strong self-care and not being overly worried about others’ illnesses), though it makes me wary at times to discuss my own worries with him.

Don and I talked it through, and he argued against some of the reasons I was thinking of going to the doctor (e.g. I was worrying that if the vertigo got worse while on my trip, I would be a burden to my family, and feel guilty about not having gotten it checked out before leaving; or I might feel like I shouldn’t say anything about it in order not to worry them). We had a good conversation about it, and managed not to polarize in our positions on what to do. We talked through the various scenarios, and decided it was reasonable to call a nurse and get advice about whether to come in. After asking a bunch of questions, she said I was “just this side of the line” towards getting it checked out. So I did go in, and the PA who examined me was not alarmed. Likely some kind of sinus or inner ear thing, he advised me, and we talked about equalizing pressure on the upcoming plane ride. Pretty anticlimactic (I’d been wondering whether to eat lunch or not before the appointment, in case they decided to do a CT scan of my head…!) and a happy enough outcome for the moment.

It seems to me that part of the internal challenge to this “finding a middle way” is to not let the internal polarization escalate – with both internal voices getting louder and louder in response to each other. I have been practicing self-love, self-compassion, and self-acceptance, for example by putting a hand on my heart and saying to myself, “of course you’re scared.” Mingyur Rinpoche, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Don has been studying with a lot lately, says that our self-preservation instincts, even when they lead us in the direction of greed and other negative things, are at their most basic level a kind of love – of our own selves and lives – and therefore good. If we can recognize them for what they are, a component of our basic goodness, we can reduce our suffering.

It seems to me that this kind of practice is also something we need interpersonally and politically. As another wise teacher, Don Coleman, recently said at a workshop on awareness of unconscious bias, “Can we keep softening?” Instead of hardening our positions in opposition to the “other side,” can we get curious, and seek the basic goodness that underlies even seemingly horrendous behavior? I think in some ways we all have a smidgen of oppositional personality disorder, and that our individualistic culture may promote it. As soon as someone says “Do x,” a part of us is convinced we absolutely must do “not-x.” Can we learn to be aware of this reactivity, and not driven by it?

The famous physicist Neils Bohr is quoted as saying, “the opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.” Can I find the “yes, and” approach to my two internalized parental voices within me? Can we find the profound truths hidden in our political opponents’ positions? Can we do an aikido-like “blend” with the power of our enemies, and thus protect them as well as ourselves from harm, rather than trying to meet the force head-on in a mutually destructive collision?

And can I be spacious, aware, and loving with the seemingly contradictory voices within me, about even this? For there is also a voice in my head that says “no, you cannot focus on finding ‘basic goodness’ in a greedy, racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, mendacious so-and-so. You must take a stand for facts over falsehoods, and right over wrong! Don’t go back to sleep, don’t go back to avoiding looking at the brokenness in the world.”

Yes. And. Of course you’re afraid. Keep softening.








4 thoughts on “On fear, polarization, and softening in the face of fear”

  1. Well, i’m challenged by this Word Press, but I ‘ll write my comment which apparently got lost when i attempted to send it to you. Me and tech. Not fun!!

    I’m not sure where i am on the approach/avoidance scale of hypochondria, but more towards approach i suspect. Especially since i had a broken thumb bone last year, and a partial achilles tear many years ago, but really not much.

    I’ll add the layer of making calls to Nurse Direct to help determined if i should go in to a doctor, and if so, how soon. I’m fairly certain they always told me to go in, only weighing in on whether i might wait till the following day or not.

    All that said, I ‘d like to add the layer of European American privileged background, so I ‘ve always had relatively adequate health insurance.

    So i’d ask you, Becca: What, if any, influence does your level of privilege have on your decision making? I’m thinking that, for myself, i wouldn’t be on the fence as much of the time
    If i had less privilege.

    What do you think?

    1. Great point about privilege. Yes. And sorry about not “approving” your comments… I can’t figure out how to get it to notify me that they need approving, and some people’s don’t seem to need it… I’ll figure it out eventually!

  2. And now I can see this piece.
    As always, lots of fodder for thought, and some great “sayings” to take with me.
    BTW, I totally don’t remember the bike incident, so either you didn’t share it with me, or my dad didn’t, or I just forgot!

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