Befriending fear

Does the universe send you messages in threes? That seems to be what it takes for the word to sink in around me.

My beloved M first told me a story years ago about how her counselor helped her deal with the long-simmering anger lingering decades after the physical abuse in her childhood. “Make a friend of your anger,” her counselor said. “When it shows up again, say, ‘Hello, friend. I remember you.'”

I heard that story; I felt it in my heart. But I didn’t think it through, in my mind.

Then, last week, the word came two more times in rapid succession. Thursday morning, I was riding the stationary bike at the gym before heading to the hospital in the early morning hours. These gym-rat scurryings are enlivened for me by catching up with On Being podcast episodes. On this morning, I was listening to Krista Tippett’s interview with spoken-word poet Sarah Kay. (You can listen to the interview here, and I sure hope you will. Sarah’s TED talk also is amazing, and you can find it here.)

In the midst of this interview, Sarah is speaking a poem, which includes these words:

When I was born, my mom says, I looked around the whole hospital room with a stare that said, ‘This? I’ve done this before.’ She says I have old eyes. When my grandpa Genji died, I was only five years old, but I took my mom by the hand and told her, ‘Don’t worry. He’ll come back as a baby.’ And yet for someone who’s apparently done this already, I still haven’t figured anything out yet. My knees still buckle every time I get on a stage. My self-confidence can be measured out in teaspoons mixed into my poetry, and it still always tastes funny in my mouth.

That last line rang like a gong in my mind, because I am in the midst of a similar struggle with the chaplaincy training. My prayers are connecting with people and with God, but first I have to get in the room. Therein lies the challenge. I sit in the chaplain’s small workroom, patient census in my hand, praying for the courage to get up and go into the rooms where the people are.

I remember my own counselor’s words, some years ago, as I was contemplating the leap into my new life as a gay person. Somewhat ruefully he said, “You can pray for courage, Tammerie, but it’s been my experience that courage doesn’t come ahead of time. It comes as you take the step, or make the leap. It comes in the midst of whatever the doing is that you need the courage for.”

I didn’t like hearing that, or proving the truth of the saying in my life, but I did find my counselor to be right about this, as about so many other things.

As I continued to listen to Sarah Kay in the On Being interview, I was struck by these words, too:

It has changed, but it hasn’t gone away, that fear. I think now the difference is that I know what that fear is, so when it happens or when it appears, I can say, OK, I’m terrified of going on stage. That’s what that is. I know it and I recognize it and that’s what I’m experiencing right now. OK, great, now go on stage [laugh]. So I still get very anxious and very nervous, but at least now it’s like an old friend [laugh] that I can’t get rid of, so I might as well get used to.

Like an old friend. The words time-traveled in my mind, connecting with the words in my beloved’s past. But how do you do that? I wondered.

On I went into the day, wondering, trying, struggling. Mid-morning, I sat down with my supervisor to talk over my learning goals for the summer. As we talked about the fears I was struggling with, he suggested — yep — befriending my fear. I laughed, told him the story of the morning, and put the question. “Okay. Befriend my fear. But how do I do that?”

I’m afraid of being visible, because that is the same as vulnerable. I’m afraid to be seen, because if someone can see you, they can hurt you. I’m afraid I will do something wrong, and my imperfections will be found out.

“What would perfect look like?” my supervisor asked. I had no good answer, which was itself a good answer. “Perfect” isn’t real; never has been, never will be. What’s real is scars and imperfections and vulnerability — you know, like what the people in the hospital beds are feeling, just like the family members around them, just like the doctors and nurses trying to care for them, and — yes — just like the chaplain walking into the room.

The scars are where we connect. What won’t happen if my scars don’t show?

And so this becomes one of the alchemies I am searching for this summer: how befriending my fears can bring a bloom of compassion in my heart.

My supervisor suggested listening to the fears, first of all. Understand where they come from, how they served me in the past, how they serve me still (because they must, or they wouldn’t still be around). Maybe try something like this: “Hello, fear. I remember you. You saved me more than once. But, you know what? I think I’ve got this one. You can take a seat … give it a rest. Come back again another time.”

Saying it is one thing. Really feeling it, all the way down into my gut, below words and thought … well, I would really like to let that be an easy thing to do.

Hmmm.

Sitting. Thinking.

Wondering, “What’s the Jesus thing in this moment?”

Perfect love casts out fear.

Well, yeah. But I think I have moved too fast for too long trying to get rid of the fear. Before love casts the fear out, if I really want to befriend the fear, I think I have to entertain the notion of loving the fear, somehow. And maybe that meaning is somewhere in that verse, too.

This thought reminded me of the task three different people gave me, as they walked with me through my awakening to the reality of being gay. “Tammerie,” each of these three different people said, “before you can figure out who you are made to love, you have to figure out how to love yourself.”

I was not sure how to do that. “Well,” I wondered, “what would I do if I was falling in love with someone?” I would want to spend time with them. I would want to get to know them, learn what they liked, didn’t like, where they came from, where they wanted to go.

So, I did that. I spent months listening to my self through my journal, trying different ways of thinking, moving, eating, playing, working. I learned a little about who I was, as a person who loves and is lovable.

So, yeah. Okay, Fear. Who are you? What do you like? What do you not like? Where did you come from? Where are you going? How can I make you feel welcome? How can I invite you to rest? How can we make room for each other, work together, be together?

What gift have you brought me?

What gift can I give you?

Friendships take time. Let’s not be in too big a hurry.

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