AN INTERROGATION OF FEAR

Since my last post I’ve been mulling over fear, and the insidious way it infiltrates so many aspects of my life. This is a benefit of having identified my fourth corner – even without intending to, my subconscious is analysing every inch of that angle in an attempt to overcome it. The act of recognition is enough that I simply can’t ignore it anymore. It’s like when you buy a new car and suddenly start seeing that same model everywhere. Only instead of Nissan Pulsars, my periphery is being snagged by moments when I realise I’m holding back, or feeling anxious, because of fear.

I use the word insidious with very deliberate intent. This is how I’ve gotten to twenty-six without pulling myself up sooner, gritting my teeth and staring down my flaw in an old country shoot-out.

It hid. And I was its accomplice.

The camouflage, like all good camouflage, appeared natural, so when I scanned my actions for inconsistency my metaphorical eyes skipped right over the fear squatting in the middle of my decision-making processes.

It hid in rationale.

See, as I grew and came across confronting situations, my brain learnt to weigh the risk and plan an appropriate course of action. I would see a kid dared to drink two litres of milk vomiting and whimpering in pain at the one and a half litre mark and decide to politely decline when dared to try the same. I gauged the discomfort of potentially retching out a good part of my stomach-lining against the notoriety of being the guy who sculled two litres of milk, and found it wanting. I reasoned that the reward was not worth the risk.

This ability is necessary for survival. It’s how we learn that, no matter how pretty the flame, grabbing at the gas stove won’t end well. It’s why most people who see footage of base-jumpers shake their head and mutter a few choice curse words before declaring that they would never do that in a million years. This line of logic has kept our species alive for countless generations – those without it failed to evolve due to extinction.

So it was within this nest of good reasoning that my fear hid, looking to all outward appearances like a well-thought out decision. But it was, in fact, an excuse. Let me give you another example:

I’m ten, dressed in little red speedos and pretty confident I’m pulling them off, and paddling around the local pool. Enter a friend who begs me to come jump off the tall diving board with him, extrapolating on all the joys I would find from flinging myself off such a great height and falling into a body of water. I trace my gaze all the way up the long ladder to the top where the older boys are pushing each other off, and feel that familiar curl of fear in my stomach. It’s big, and intimidating, and I’m scared. A gear shifts in my head and I’m laying out all the risks: broken neck, drowning, smacking my head on the diving board on the way down, and, of course, a dreaded ten foot belly-wacker. The scales in my head tilt and the decision is made – no way am I jumping off the tall diving board. My friend whines and cajoles, and eventually stomps away in defeat to wait at the bottom of the ladder.

Perfectly reasoned out decision. Only there’s one catch: the risk wasn’t why I didn’t jump.

It was the fear of risk.

Even taking into account the potential harm, the odds of me injuring either my body or pride were low (I didn’t realise it, but my pride had already taken a hit by my wearing of the speedos). I was insecure and built a defence of reason to justify my cowardice. My fear was fed, I failed to act, and was left thinking I had done the right thing.

My self-delusion and lack of insight weren’t the worst part, however. No. The worst part is I will never know what it feels like to jump off the tall diving board at the age of ten. That is by far the most tragic outcome of my flaw.

This may seem like an insignificant consequence of what is meant to be the defining defect in my character, but take a moment to think it out. Extrapolate this one small self-denied joy and spread it across a lifetime. How many thousands of moments have I backed down and missed out on? Where would I be, who would I be, if I faced down my fear, sucked up my courage, and climbed, knees trembling, to the top of that ladder?

I can’t know the answers to those questions, and if I’m honest, I’m not too worried about what they are. I am who I am. Like any human that has ever existed, I am the end results of all my successes and failures, skills and flaws, and am an interesting, three-dimension person because of it. Ultimately the answers don’t matter because I am happy with the man I am.

What dwelling on this aspect of myself gives me, the gift that comes from pawing through my tangle of persona and following the thread of fear to its root, is the option of choice.

Before, I was acting on years of instincts, giving in to the immediate reflex to step back, to say no, to protect myself from a menagerie of conjured physical and emotional risks. But now that I can recognise that reaction I have the option to ignore it. I can look at the decision I’m making, dissect the anxiety I’m feeling, and identify it as fear. Once done, it loses its hold. Yes, the fear is still there, but I’ve blown its cover, and I’m no longer mindlessly reacting from that place. I’m stepping back, and isolating that fear, and deciding who I want to be and what I want to do despite its influence.

The choice I now have is to go against my instinct, and step, heart thudding, to the edge of the diving board, and throw myself off.

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THE FOURTH CORNER

Monday found me sitting in a classroom at RMIT University for the second week of an eight week screenwriting course I’m attending with my brother and cousin. The topic was character.

Our teacher sought to have us delve into what made the central character of our television shows tick, and he went about it through activities designed to reveal every facet of our characters. We began with how our character would come off in public, the face they showed the world and how they were perceived. This was the mask they wore, the version they thought socially acceptable, and one designed to gloss over the darker parts of themselves. Or, as our teacher put, “What they use to hide the fucked up parts.” I like his phrasing better. It feels more honest.

This led to examining the parts they hide, the weaknesses and flaws they’re aware of and deliberately conceal. Their self under the mask.

Which led to the parts they think they hide, but what is in fact readily apparent to anyone who has known them longer than an hour. Example: Maybe they’re terrified when it comes to talking to the opposite sex, and attempt to hide this fear by talking loudly and endlessly when engaging with someone of a different gender. Said opposite gender would see their insecurity immediately while our main character feels cocky in their seamless concealment of their inner demon.

Lastly we analysed the attributes our character had that no one knew existed, excluding the god-like figure of the writer, of course. The latent characteristics that would boil to the surface given the right circumstances. Admirable or amoral.

As we worked through the layers of our character I found myself inevitably turning the magnifying glass around and seeing myself as a character. What was my mask? What did I hide? What did I hide poorly? And what potential, good or bad, lurked within me? The process felt like an unveiling, a therapy session exploring who I really am under the bluster and bravado I put up to get through another day.

The next activity looked at the four corners of a character. Picture a square. Each corner of that square represents an attribute of our character. Three of those corners can represent a positive facet of our character. Maybe they’re friendly, honest, and hard-working. A nice character, certainly, but, when boiled down, a boring one. Our teacher was keen to stress that this character, in their current state, bred no stories. This character was unrealistic.

Enter the fourth corner. The final corner had to represent a negative trait in our character. Maybe jealousy. Maybe selfishness. Maybe our character is friendly, honest, and hard-working, but underneath it is a fear that they can never be enough. This is a three-dimensional character. This character has stories to tell.

Again the process of self-reflection was inevitable. I sat and wondered what my fourth corner was, and it solidified when our teacher described the fourth corner as being “the thing that fucks things up when you’re doing well. The root of every time you felt you failed, and the trait overcame every time you felt you succeeded.” A fatal flaw.

I knew it then. For me, it’s fear of risk. Fear of looking stupid, fear of failing, fear of injury, fear of limiting options, fear of consequences, fear of not coming back. When summarised: fear of risk.

Every time I didn’t say something when I wanted to, every time I didn’t act when I should have, every time I looked back and felt that squirm of discomfort and embarrassment about something from my past was because I was too afraid to behave how a better part of me thought I should. I had weighed the risk and my resolve crumbled and I did nothing. It’s insecurity, and I hide it with a mask of confidence.

And every time I felt I succeeded? When I knew the risk but did it anyway. Asked the question and risked looking stupid. Said the words that needed to be aired. Acted without sure footing underneath. For me, my nursing career is an accomplishment because delving into the intimate and confronting aspects of health, death, and humanity is something I wanted to run away from a hundred times. I saw the reality and shrank from it. But I didn’t run, instead I waded into the risk-filled arena and made my peace with it.

It would be impolite of me to ask what your fourth corner is, but I going to ask anyway.

What is it?

Don’t tell me, but think about and see if you can find the answer for yourself. Dip down into that part of your brain where you hide hard truths and force yourself to look at it. Don’t act on it straight away. This isn’t an exercise in changing yourself. Just identify it and sit with it a bit. Get used to knowing this part of you. Make your peace with it.

And know that it isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a thing, and something that makes you three-dimensional. Something that makes you human.

Something that makes your story worth telling.

AUDILE

Before I gained the ability to tackle novels, back when I was still mastering picture books like “The Strongest Baby In The World,” my father used to read novels to me and my siblings. I can remember my dad seated on a sofa in the corner of the living room and us kids sprawled around him, the semi-shag carpet cushioning my head as I lay listening to his narration, letting his voice weave stories in my mind.

I loved these nights, and loved the ability of someone else’s words creating worlds and characters that I could envisage from the comfort of my living room floor.

Having outgrown the age when it is socially acceptable for my father to read me stories before bed, I still enjoy spoken prose through the art of audiobooks. Working as a district nurse inherently involves a lot of driving, and to pass the time commuting from patient to patient I have my iPod playing in the car, and stories playing in my head.

There is a power in having a novel read to you, in having the sensory elements of sound and tone help build the details of the story. Character’s voices flesh out personalities, pauses create suspense, and you can close your eyes, block out any distractions, and picture the world that’s being described to you.

But like any art form you are reliant on the artist to dictate the perspective you take when perceiving the piece. For someone reading a novel, they are building on top of a pre-existing piece of art, adding another layer of texture with a new medium. This new layer, this alternative perspective, can make or break a story. It can enhance what was already there and bring new body to the work, or it can cheapen it and detract from the power of the piece, dependant on the reader’s skill. I have listened to some readers that have made characters come alive, and others that have only succeeded in making them annoying. Realising the importance of the verbal narrator’s skill has made me admire the former and their vocal abilities.

With all this in mind, for today’s post I have attempted a reading of my short story Remembering The Mimi. The process of recording this only increased my admiration for quality readers as I mumbled and stumbled my way through multiple takes. It also gave me a newfound respect for people who use audio-editing software, as I had to learn how to remove my numerous errors.

So put in some headphones, close your eyes, if it’s available lay down on some semi-shag carpet, and let me tell you a story…