What Are You Afraid of?

Everyone is afraid of something. The human race has been able to survive based on a primal instinct to assess risk, not through careful and deliberative thinking but through the grasping gnawing emotions of fear. Everyone has felt that pulse-quickening, stomach-dropping feeling of panic. And no one likes it.

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about fear because I am remarkably lucky. I’m not afraid of spiders or snakes, heights or caves, flying or water. I’m pretty comfortable with going to new places, meeting new people and learning new things. I find the dark disorienting and I don’t enjoy being unable to communicate or move freely, but compared to most, I feel like my ambient level of fear is pretty low.

This week, I listened to a podcast about fear. And listening to other people talk about fear — what it is and how they have addressed it — got me thinking. What am I afraid of and how does it impact my life?

My most tangible moment of fear was when my son was quite young, maybe three years old. I was alone with him in the house and he was still sleeping. I sat down on the bed and in a moment of exhaustion closed my eyes. I woke up 30 minutes later immediately worried that I had given my toddler too long by himself. I jumped up to confirm that he was tucked in bed.

He wasn’t in his bed. He wasn’t playing in the playroom. He hadn’t turned on the tv or gotten on the computer. The panic rose and I started running through the house, first calling, then shouting, then screaming his name. Upstairs, downstairs, basement, garage, backyard. My voice started to break and I found myself in tears trying desperately to calm down enough to think of a plan. What do you do when your toddler wanders off? Who do you call? Would my husband ever forgive me for losing our son?

Then I heard a sleepy voice from upstairs. “Mom?”

I sprinted up the stairs two at a time, running into the computer room where he was laying on the futon. He looked surprised and still tired; he had clearly woken up at some point and fallen back asleep there. I grabbed him as hard as I had ever grabbed anyone, running my hands over him and smelling his hair. My brain understood that all was well, but the primal fear wanted confirmation that he was real, that he was whole.

Nothing in my life — before or after — has scared me as much as that moment.

But as I put the pattern together in my head I know I have felt that feeling other times. That horrible sickening feeling has almost always come when someone I care about has been put at risk by my action or inaction. It doesn’t matter if the risk is physical or emotional, professional or financial. It was just this week that I came to an understanding that my single biggest fear is that someone I love would be better off without me.

And that they might realize it.

Like any other phobia, I recognize the irrationality of my fear. In my intellectual core, I know that it is crazy. Most days I live miles away from that feeling, strong in my confidence that I am a good mom, a good wife, a good worker. That I am a good person. But it is always there, camping out in a corner of my brain waiting for a moment when it can remind me that it could happen.

And the hard thing is it does happen. Wrapped around every time when something doesn’t go to plan is the fear that rises up, invited and unwelcome. I imagine it is like the people who live contentedly with a fear of flying and then sit white-knuckled on a plane. I’m in the air now flying through turbulence. No biggie for me, but for those guys? It must stink. But, there must be some comfort in recognizing it for what it is and being able to deal with it then.

That’s why I enjoy podcasts. They give me new ways to think about the world, reframe my ideas and come out with new understanding. No, I don’t have a fear of tight spaces (claustrophobia) or a fear of spiders (arachnophobia) or a fear of the foreign (xenophobia) — I have a fear of failing the ones I love.

I wonder if there’s a word for that?